Premiering at JIFF in 2017 and winning Best Emerging Director at Locarno Film Festival, Kim Dae-hwan’s second feature explores the relationship of an early-thirty-something couple who navigates through social pressure and the stagnation of their careers and relationship.
Having been together for almost seven years, Su-hyeon (Cho Hyun-chul), an art teacher, and Ji-young (Kim Sae-byuk), a broadcasting coordinator, navigate through their life until one night Ji-young tells Su-hyeon that she might be pregnant.
Tensions grow as they are invited to celebrate the birthday of Su-hyeon together with his estranged family. Right before this visit, they go to the house of Ji-young’s parents and confront some harsh sociocultural and generational expectations. Both reflect on their relationships and life situation.
Both protagonists focus on their careers, but this stagnates. On one end, Su-hyeon cannot decipher the “why” behind his art and lacks the inner motivation to explore this. On the other end, Ji-young depends on others for her work development in a competitive environment. Despite this, they go about their day and with the flow. When Ji-young’s mother confronts them with relevant questions, the conversation turns awkward and the thinking beings.
It is this awkwardness that guides the film, highlights every relationship, and transforms into genuine chemistry.
Moreover, in an interview Kim Dae-hwan revealed that the dialogues were ad-hoc, meaning that improvisation dominated the conversations. Not only highlights this improvisation the awkwardness, but also contributes to a slow tempo and the reaction in the dialogues.
Nevertheless, the chemistry between Kim Sae-byuk and Cho Hyun-chul is excellent and feels real, as their reactions, which comprised walls of silence and avoiding eyes, results in a believable human response.
In addition to the dialogue, the natural vibe in the scenes appears from the handheld camera that follows the protagonists and serves as an observer in each act with a handful of close-ups. No background music remarks the soberness of the situations and incorporates another layer to the feeling of stagnation in their life.
As part of their (mis)communication, Ji-young and Su-hyeon barely say something, and when they say anything the predominant words are “don’t know’’. Both don’t know about their relationship and their careers. Su-hyeon has several instances of uncertainty, such as why he paints self-portraits, why he invited Ji-young to his parents, and what he should do with his family.
All these situations confront him with a reality that he is not expecting. The same applies to Ji-young, who doesn’t want to meet Su-hyeon’s parents, and cannot confront her mother, always turning to silence instead of having a plan, as she always does.
The ending scene [spoiler, analysis]
However, in the ending scene, all seems to change. Finally, Su-hyeon and Ji-young point a direction to where to go in the congregated square where they promenade. They both decide to move with the mass of people that is protesting President Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal.
Metaphorically, they decide to walk along with the protesters and move with the new generation of Korea; they go with the wave and new current. The classic frozen frame of Su-hyeon indicates the completion of their lap, and the beginning of new one, just after Su-hyeon, finally, decides a direction.
Flash-forward? [spoiler, analysis]
One confusing aspect, and an enigma to me still, is that midway through the film, we see a flash-forward. In a scene where Su-hyeon enjoys alcohol, while he previously didn’t do that, a baby’s cry interrupts their dinner. With the words ‘’she is awake,’’ Su-hyeon drops his food and darts towards a room, indicating that they have a daughter. This flash-forward arrives out of nowhere, as the scenes before and after this one, don’t show any suggestion of time passing.
Through natural and ad hoc dialogues with no background music, The First Lap follows a couple in the phase of transition. A transition in their lives as young adults. Leaving the dialogue to the actors, Kim Dae-hwan’s directions and editing bring a realness to the slow tempo and seamless natural way of progressing the story.
By addressing various topics such as communications, expectations and desire versus generational differences, The First Lap brings people to this Hong Sang-soo vibe that looks to present Korea through a private casual story.