Living in Southern California, the problem of homelessness is a significant issue, but the problem exists in almost every major city around the world. To most of us, the homeless are strangers, nameless faces, in need of our pocket change to get them to the next day. If you think about it, a stranger to us but family or friend to someone else.
From Korea, writer/director Jeom Go-woon gives a face to the homeless problem, a face that could be one of our friends or even your own. In Microhabitat Lee som is Miso, a young woman working day-to-day as a housekeeper in Seoul, South Korea. She earns just enough to feed herself every day and pay the monthly rent on an empty apartment. Her boyfriend, Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong) works for a paint company in hopes of one day to save enough to propose to Miso.
Living paycheck-to-paycheck is not easy for Miso, and things take a turn for the worse when the price of cigarettes double. Miso decides that the comfort she gets from cigarettes and alcohol is more important than paying rent on her apartment and moves out.
Is it me or is this a really bad decision? Cigarettes over shelter? And yet, somehow we’re convinced that Miso is making a choice that’s right for her. It’s cigarettes and booze that will ultimately get her through the day and not an apartment for sleeping and shelter.
“Surely, she can move in with her boyfriend or her close friends. That’s what friends do, right?”
Miso’s choice to move out was a simple one…in her mind. Surely, she can move in with her boyfriend or her close friends. That’s what friends do, right? The boyfriend is not an option as he’s about to accept a “temporary” position in Saudi Arabia in hopes of returning with enough money to marry Miso.
What Microhabitat is really about is friendship and its strength when things go bad. Here we observe Miso’s friendships and relationships and how these friends and family respond to her situation. Imagine that awkward feeling when asking friends and family for money.
As Miso presents her problem, it immediately comes up against her friends’ problems. As the story plays out each friend has some excuse or another as for why she can’t stay with them. “My husband doesn’t like you.” “You gave up your apartment for cigarettes?!?” Most want to help her, but can’t; some flat out say no, and others set conditions that she can’t or won’t meet.
Microhabitat is essentially a series of small skits. Miso bounces from friend to friend like chapters in a book. Each chapter focuses on a specific reaction and followed by an excuse not to help.
“Her portrayal is subtle and never confrontational. It’s real and never pathetic…”
Lee Som’s performance as Miso is tragically sweet. Her portrayal is subtle and never confrontational. It’s real and never pathetic. Miso is a proud person never willing to ask for help a second time. Your heart sinks deeper and deeper as it dawns on you that you probably know someone like her and that you may actually have the means to help. Rather than beg,
As Americans, there are reasons…petty reasons…why we don’t flock to foreign films. Simply, they are different, and we do it better. So set your arrogance aside. Yes, Microhabitat runs at a slower pace than what we’re used to. Miso has no real character arc as the focus is on her friends and the way they choose not to help. And the ending may feel forced for the sake of pathos, but ultimately Microhabitat’s goal is to evoke emotion.
Microhabitat (2018) Written and directed by Jeom Go-woon. Starring Lee Som, Ahn Jae-hong. Microhabitat screened at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars