Jealousy Is My Middle Name

Park Hae-il (left) with Bae Jong-ok in Park Chan-ok’s “Jealousy is My Middle Name” (2003)

It was with a curious sort of compulsion that I was drawn to Jealousy Is My Middle Name, the first of Park Chan-ok’s two feature films to date. I saw sought her other movie, Paju, because, as I’ve written, Martin Scorsese included her in a list of South Korean directors who have impressed him (I chose Paju over Jealousy arbitrarily). I was curious about who this filmmaker was because I’d never heard of her elsewhere and, moreover, because she is a woman. I tend to expect sensitivity, poignancy, nuance, a perceptive eye for details, and a patient sense of pacing from female filmmakers (see: Chantal Akerman, Kelly Reichardt, Sophia Coppola, July Jung), among the qualities I value most in movies, and hoped Park’s talents would fit this description.

Paju indeed satisfied all these criteria, but it was also inscrutable and grim. Chronology was mixed up; pained, dark backstories were hinted at but left undisclosed; people’s characters—whether they were good or bad, protective or predatory, redeemed or fallen—were unreadable. I was inclined at first to dismiss the movie as pretentious, a movie made with the conviction that if it were confusing and heavy enough, it would be taken seriously. Upon a second viewing though, I saw more merit in it and thought it was an exceptional movie. Still, it has only happened now, as thoughts about the movie continue to rattle around my head nearly a year later, that I understood that I never fully appreciated Park’s accomplishment, and it was with this thought in mind that I was drawn to Jealousy Is My Middle Name (the movie shares a title with a poem by South Korea’s Ki Hyongdo).

With this movie too, it wasn’t initially apparent that I was watching a masterwork. Even with my conviction that Paju was a great work, I had the impression well into Jealousy that it was inferior, the work of someone still finding her voice, lacking the courage needed to create something remarkable. However, I later saw that this initial impression reflected the movie’s unassuming style, not its actual quality. Park is clearheaded enough in her vision and confident enough in her skill that she works without the drive to impress people, to tie her talent to pizzazz, and trusts that the movie’s merits will be noticed. She chooses not to indicate to her viewers what they should appreciate and riskily, boldly, satisfyingly makes a movie whose appreciation depends on our patience and perception, on our asking the right questions, finding meaning in nuance, inferring what can be inferred and sitting comfortably with what cannot.

The movie begins with a break-up between Wonsang (Park Hae-il), the movie’s protagonist, and a woman named Naekyung. We understand that she left him to have an affair with an editor, though other information we would like to know—how long she and Wonsang had been together, how serious their relationship was, how she knows the editor, whether Wonsang knows the editor, whether she and the editor are still together—is left in the dark.

Around this time, Wonsang’s friend gets him a job writing for a magazine. There he meets his boss, Yoonshik (Moon Sung-keun). It seems safe to assume that this magazine editor is the editor Naekyung had her affair with, but with Park’s mode of storytelling, room for doubt is always available; our understanding of the movie is rooted in hypotheses, not premises. I am hesitant to reveal too much, since the movie asks us to come up with hypotheses ourselves and discover what’s available to be discovered when enough details accumulate. Such is the way we come to understand who Yoonshik is (yes, he is “the editor”)—not through any direct cues but after carrying the assumption for some time, learning more about him, and recognizing there’s no need to go on doubting.

Yoon-shik (Moon Sung-keun) with his protege, Wonsang (Park Hae-il)

The curiosity of who Naekyung’s editor-lover is is one of the movie’s smaller ones. Before the two have known each other long, Yoonshik takes on the role of a mentor to Wonsang, and Park leaves it to us to make sense of why Wonsang would go along with this relationship (while Wonsang is aware of their shared connection to Naekyung, Yoonshik is not). Also unclear is why another character, Sungyeon (Bae Jong-ok), wants to work as a photographer for this magazine when she is a working veterinarian; what Wonsang’s connection to a young woman, played by Seo Young-hee, is; why this young woman worries about her father; and what Yoonshik’s daughter (played by a young Kim Kkot-bi) knows about Wonsang.

There is hardly a moment when one of these questions doesn’t puzzle us, and I imagine many will be bothered by this puzzlement, will struggle to find answers to these questions, as though the movie were a puzzle to be solved. However, not all the questions raised are meant to be answered and nothing is offered in return for a good guess. (If you try to make sense of the mystery surrounding Yoonshik’s daughter, this point should be apparent.) Park observes drama in day-to-day life, often inscrutable and unexceptional. It is drama manifested in her characters, who we see only in the present but whose pasts, full of disappointment, hardship, and regret, are heavily felt.

Consider the character played by Seo Young-hee. We have only a vague understanding of how she fits into the story for most of the movie’s duration (I deliberate omit her name—even that piece of information is initially withheld), and our sense of who she is amounts to a general impression. We see her chiding her brother for missing a medical examination at one point and pouting when Wonsang won’t take her to the swimming pool at another. We don’t know the context of these moments, why she cares whether her brother skips an appointment or what plans she and Wonsang had made (in a delightfully sly and unassuming moment of ambiguity, she refers to an exchange about going the swimming pool that we haven’t seen and says to Wonsang, “But you promised!” He responds by saying, “No I didn’t. You just decided we were going”). We see in these moments though someone childish and immature, someone easy to condescend to, take advantage of, and mock.

However, there is a turning point regarding this impression, when this character’s brother behaves strangely and she reacts hysterically. Again, I hesitate to reveal too much, but I will say it is a moment that not only confirms something we had suspected about her family but also connects her day-to-day circumstances to struggle, pain, and fear previously unknown to us. We do not retroactively change our sense of what kind of person she is—Park doesn’t operate in twists or reversals, doesn’t mislead or deceive—but we expand our capacity for compassion, check our inclination to laugh at this character and find ourselves more interested in knowing her. We do not merely see her as childish or immature but add on top of this impression a desire to know what her characteristics reveal about her upbringing and how this sort person will manage the hardship and responsibility that awaits her.

We can ask these same questions about Wonsang, Yoonshik, or Sungyeon. With all of them, hints about their pasts color our understanding of them; the pain they carry with them is tied to the regrettable decisions they make. This point doesn’t excuse their behavior but brings out how little about these people we understand. It is a point that comes into focus gradually, and perhaps Park’s most valuable skill is her ability to get us prematurely to see her characters as pitiable or immoral and later, with the sufficient accumulation of details, have us reevaluate them, replace judgment with curiosity, leave us aware that we do not adequately know them to judge with moral authority. The idea carries over into life: people are complex, their backgrounds largely unknown. We cannot know what pain is tied to bad behavior, and we would be wise to bear this thought in mind before we judge.

Jealousy Is My Middle Name

<질투는 나의 힘> (Jiltu-neun na-ui him)


124 minutes

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