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Bella Dubens on Gyopo

November 3, 2020

Guest post by Bella Dubens, student at New York University

Samuel Kiehoon Lee’s directorial debut, Gyopo tells the stories of sixteen young individuals living, coming, and going in Seoul over the course of a day. As one might imagine, the lives of sixteen young people are incredibly varied, and their individual endeavours of apartment hunting, sex, boredom, and of course, soju, are bound only by their gyopo status and their sometimes significant, often fleeting, interactions throughout the day.

The term gyopo, refers to those who are Korean, but have been raised abroad. Our characters come from all over — Germany, the US — and, as they each find themselves back in South Korea they struggle with the reconciliation of their identities.

Gyopo isn’t the first film to explore a set of people over 24 hours, yet the film offers a fresh take given its scope. Created over four years and shot over two summers, Gyopo gives us a lifetime of moments packed within that small sunrise to sunrise frame that serves to tell stories that stretch beyond the day in the life trope. An emphasis placed upon where the characters have been and where they are going, not only during the day, but also their lives, helps to solidify the film’s aim and in turn creates a living, breathing study of a group of young people, each at different stages in their lives, and in their understanding of themselves.

Samuel Kiehoon Lee explained in a  Q&A with SDAFF that for this feature, he put aside the traditional screenplay, instead opting to shoot from a spreadsheet. This format certainly lends itself to the understated, improvised film, with the director emphasizing the overall feel of the film, rather than dictating certain moments. The resultant everyday interactions are fantastically mundane. We experience the ordinary, yet are not bored by it. The focus on the normal is not a well trodden path, and so the viewer is given the opportunity to find joy in lengthy subway scenes and fleshed out haircuts. The notion of spontaneous normalcy is further embraced by the actors’ lack of professional experience, the majority of whom had no prior experience in that field.

This improvised feel builds to the director’s ability to create a truly realistic film. With so many significant characters, one can’t help but wonder if the results will be lost and muddled or whether a level of true understanding will be achieved, the people come and go, crossing paths, and the result is something easy and natural. It helps highlight the uniqueness of each character, a difficult feat given the film’s just over 90 minute run time. These special interactions are masterfully matched. Sam (played by Lee) returns home from a long night of women and drinking and comes across Matt, who’s delicately cooking up a perfect omelette. The two characters, two of many, could so easily be swallowed up by the film but through this short and casual crossover we can infer what kind of person Sam is, and what kind of person Matt is. As we return to them over the various stages of the day — one ditches their friend’s art performance and the other rescues a woman from rape — we are able to achieve quite a deep understanding of their personas, through quite limited moments of interaction.

The way in which the story is told is delightfully messy, showcasing a dance of languages between Korean, English, and German. The form varies too, the mostly black and white film giving way to bursts of color in which saturated omelettes, motorcycles, and denim shorts dance across an otherwise greyscale screen. These clashing contrasts serve to emphasize the difficulty in finding one clear path. Further, the film employs a use of the surreal, seen in a lovely and surprising dance scene undertaken by commuters in the subway and in a funny yet poignant scene where a teacher is told by his young English student that he’s spending too much money on girls and alcohol. These moments, in which the form contrasts with itself, serve to emphasize the contradictions within the characters themselves, and their difficulty in fitting within any of the worlds that they find themselves bound to.

This major theme is addressed throughout the film, through their interactions with those who are “Korean Korean” that exacerbate their language barriers and concerns about their rights. There are moments, though, when it is not their lack of belonging to either world that is highlighted, but their ability to be the bridge between their dual upbringings. In one instance, Matt breaks up an interaction between a drunk American and a female shopkeeper. Matt’s ability to act as the mediator, although he shouldn’t have to be, seems to originate from that ability to belong to two places at once.

What Gyopo does so well is understand what it is, at the core, to be someone of dual heritage, whilst not making any concrete assumptions at all. It perfectly understands the duality of being one thing, and also not fitting within that mold. The film is lighthearted and funny, yet doesn’t skip out on themes that are heavy, and necessary to discuss.

Bella Dubens is currently a student of Cinema Studies at New York University. She grew up in London, England and spends the vast majority of her time watching movies and writing screenplays that pick apart her childhood. Find her on her ‘coming soon’ Instagram account, @captionoptional

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