Take Care of My Cat opens with five girls noisily celebrating their graduation, and then plunges just as suddenly into the morass their adult lives have become. In the space of only a year, the space they shared together as friends has splintered. Suddenly all the girl stuff that seemed so important last year is no longer enough to keep people together — but that doesn't stop them from trying. They stay in touch via instant messages and cellphones, sometimes with one or two of them doing all the work to corral them together. But they are no longer the clique they used to be. Whether they like it or not, they are grown up.
This may not sound like a description of one of the most riveting and beautiful movies I've seen lately, and in the abstract a story like this could have simply been turned into an exercise in cheap melodrama or theatrics. It never does, and that is a credit to Jae-eun Jeong, a first-time Korean director and screenwriter who makes the best aspects of his film almost invisible. There's never a sense that the film is plotted, that the characters are being hustled from A to B in the story — but it also never seems aimless and it's never uninteresting. Like Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese master of movies about life's quiet drifts (in fact, one of his best movies was named Drifting Weeds), he doesn't take sides, but simply illustrates and lets the drama speak for itself.
The five girls of Cat form a cross-section of Korean youth. Tae-hee (Du-na Bae) is the daughter in a well-to-do middle-class family that makes herbal remedies. Her parents are boorish and self-important, and she divides her time between working for her family's business without pay and volunteering as a typist for a poet crippled by cerebral palsy. She is unquestionably lonely, starved for affection and simple human contact, but the poet is too damaged in both body and spirit to give it to her, and her family is simply not capable of it. It's no wonder she turns to her friends for support, and is dismayed when she finds what was once so tightly knit is now unraveling.
Hae-joo (Yu-won Lee) works as a trainee in a busy brokerage firm, and is proud of having made so much of herself — which includes getting the attentions of one of the other brokers there, a man not much older than her. She's the most visibly successful of the group, and uses her money as a way to paper over holes in their relationships — as in a key scene where she invites everyone to come to Seoul (most of the rest of the crew live in Inchon) on her dime.
There are also a pair of twins, Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo (played by real-life twins Eung-sil Lee and Eun-Joo Lee), who make their living selling handmade jewelry from a street vendor cart, and act as a foil and stabilizer for the other three. They are perhaps the least developed of the characters, but they are also the most straightforward — their lives are not as complex, although they see everything that goes on with clarity and perception.
Ji-young (Ji-young Ok) is the most visibly troubled of the girls, an orphan who lives with her grandparents in a (literally) crumbing shantytown house. She wants to study textile designs, and is in fact very talented, but there's no money or employment for someone like her and she's more or less shackled to her ailing family. She's despondent and withdrawn, and one of the movie's finest points is how it shows her being like this without making her into a stereotypically pitiful figure. She has a scene late in the film, played almost entirely with only her eyes, where an insensitive cop insults her profoundly. A speech would have ruined the moment; all she does is look at the camera and that tells us everything.
The girls stay in touch as best they can, via phone or message, but the real gulf is in their hearts.
There is also the cat, a plot element that could have become distracting but instead enriches the movie. Near the start of the film, Ji-young finds a stray kitten and tries to present it to Hae-joo as a gift at her birthday party. In turn, each of them will wind up caring for the cat for a time, but the movie's plot is not driven by this — it's reflected in it. The movie uses the cat as a way to throw each of the characters into even sharper relief. When Ji-young decides she doesn't want the cat, she rather rudely gives it back to the impoverished girl through the gate of a train station. Her life has no room for such a frivolity.
Much of the film takes place in both Seoul and Inchon, which through the lens of the cinematographer (first-timer Yeong-kwan Choi) look achingly lovely and sad. I wondered if much of the movie is intended as a commentary on how Asian life in general is becoming subsumed into a less distinctive global commercial culture. The girls don't seem particularly connected to anything specifically Korean: they go to dance halls and eat at Dunkin' Donuts, and in a scene that's both funny and bitter, Tae-hee's family eat at an American-style ribs restaurant and don't even know what most of the stuff on the menu is. (That also makes sense in light of a later scene where the girls celebrate together by cooking a Korean delicacy.) Korea may be a wealthy and prosperous nation, but it's not without poverty and alienation; at one point two of the girls encounter a silent, disturbing-looking beggar on a bridge, who also happens to be female.
One of the film's other silent ironies is how, despite being forced to accept adult responsibility, many of the girls are still treated like ... well, like girls. Hae-joo, the most financially successful. is still a commodity, fetching coffee and running errands on lunch hours. Ji-young is trapped by poverty and family obligations that seem insurmountable; Tae-hee is treated with such contempt by her family that she rebels by slicing herself out of a family portrait and running off. Only the twins seem to have escaped this trap, but only perhaps by dint of not having stuck their necks out that far, so to speak — they're hard to tell not only from each other, the movie seems to be saying, but from a great many other young Korean women who simply work hard and keep their heads down.
The director also finds ways to enhance his story visually without smothering it. When the girls send instant messages to each other, the texts are printed onscreen in various ways — sometimes on the facades of buildings, or floating by outside the window. I also liked how the poems Tae-hee types up are printed at the foot of the bed. (The DVD idiomatically subtitles all of this material; it's one of the best subtitling jobs I've seen in any Korean movie so far.)
Most movies about young women never seem to deal with things as the girls themselves deal with them. They're either about sex — not a bad subject in itself, but most of the way it's dealt with in movies is lopsided and unconvincing. What's interesting about Take Care of My Cat is that sex seems to be the last thing on any of their minds. They're too busy just trying to be adults. Sex would be like icing on a cake that would give them tummyaches.