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Movie Review: Take Care of My Cat

School is a tremendously influential social experience for many Koreans; often the friends you make in the classroom can be your friends for life. And yet, it’s a common experience that even the closest of friends in school can find themselves drifting apart in its wake. Take Care of My Cat, the debut feature by writer-director Jung Jae-eun, takes a look at five young high school graduates as the pressures of their individual lives pull these friends in different directions, testing their friendship in a time in Korea when mobile phone and internet technology was enabling casual communication in an unprecedented way.

The five women that comprise this group of friends include Hae-joo (Lee Yo-won), a lower-middle-class woman who has found a job as a clerk at a brokerage firm and is working to climb the corporate ladder, despite having been unable to go to university. Hae-joo’s best friend in high school was Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), who lives in the slums and struggles to retain any form of employment at all while hoping to become a textile designer. Ethnic Chinese twins On-joo (Lee Eun-joo) and Bi-ryoo (Lee Eun-shil) survive by selling handcrafted trinkets on the street, and middle-class Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na) tries to hold the friends together while working for her family’s business, dreaming of getting away from her controlling father and exploring the world.

Director Jung approaches the film in a non-traditional storytelling manner, preferring a more naturalistic observation of characters to a constructed Aristotelian cathartic story. As such, the film doesn’t possess the kinds of emotional highs and lows you might expect in more classical storytelling but builds its narrative interest by setting a series of aggregating microtensions against each other, especially between the increasingly estranging Hae-joo and Ji-young. The former is willing to sacrifice time spent with her friends for work and the latter is so lost in the gravity of her impoverished situation that she becomes reluctant to expose herself to her slightly more successful friends.

Tae-hee’s continuing attempts to bring the friends together and perhaps their respective obligations to the memory of their once great friendship keeps these women coming together while they struggle individually, and this dual view of seeing their individual struggles create schisms in their friendships is compelling and possibly familiar to many viewers. Even the often selfish and bossy group elder Hae-joo isn’t made an antagonist, but gets enough of a story that the film manages to invoke a measure of sympathy for her, which is quite the feat.

Because the film is able to give enough attention to at least the main three of Hae-joo, Ji-young, and Tae-hee, it’s able to simultaneously engender an interest in their individual goals and dreams as well as the fate of their friendships, keeping the film interesting to the end. It isn’t perfectly wound together and the film jumps from character to character before finding the group again, but I think that’s also in keeping with the film’s observation of the friends moving in different directions, which means that their respective climactic moments won’t necessarily align with each other’s.

If there is a weakness to the storytelling, it’s that the film sometimes doesn’t provide enough context for some of the events that affect Hae-joo, as some of the events that impact her negatively happen off-camera, leaving her story a little ambiguous. The ending in its final moments is also the only part of the film that I would really call forced, exhibiting a somewhat clashing level of obvious scripting otherwise absent in the naturalistic film. Also, On-joo and Bi-ryoo get lost in the shuffle and while I understand that they are a kind of mild comic relief from the often overwhelming pressures that affect the other three, it’s never entirely clear how they mesh with the other girls as friends.

That director Jung has recently found renewed success as a documentary filmmaker is no surprise as Take Care of My Cat reflects an almost documentary-like level of observation. Although Jung usually stays close to her subjects to make good use of her talented cast, she also occasionally diverts her camera from them altogether, capturing images of Incheon and Seoul, making the cities themselves characters in her story, edited together in documentary rhythms.

Jung, like Ji-Young in the film, also pays attention visual aesthetics in interesting ways, managing to make the ubiquitous texting and typing of the women visually interesting by fitting that text in or wrapping that text around existing visual structures in the film. By giving the text color and texture and animating it, she adds a voice to it in sync with the character instead of what might have been bland subtitles.

The cast also acquit themselves well, playing characters of their approximate ages in a rather natural way. An early feature film for Bae Doo-na, she’s as much of a standout here as she was in her previous film, Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, making real her somewhat whimsically minded character by capturing the suffocation she feels from her family life realistically and presenting that contrast without forcing it.

When combined with the film’s evocative and mesmerizing soundtrack, Byul.org’s contribution, “2,” being one of the first reasons I ever became interested in Korean music at all back in 2001, Take Care of My Cat is an unforgettable look at the trials of youthful friendship on the cusp of adulthood. Director Jung provides a compelling filmmaking approach that marries documentary-like observational sensibilities and non-traditional storytelling with a rhythmic, revealing, and even innovative aesthetic that echoes the characters and their perspectives.

And these characters are both fully fleshed out in themselves while simultaneously representing the different echelons of relatable society, their struggles with their friendship often mirroring our own. Despite a few minor hiccups in storytelling towards its end, it is what Take Care of My Cat is able to show us, both in the fate of young women in Korea after the turn of the millennium and in ourselves and our own struggles with friendship that makes it such a successful piece of cinema and a memorable film of the Korean cinematic renaissance. 9/10.

Availability: Take Care of My Cat is available on DVD, with American, European, and Hong Kong releases still apparently in circulation and can be found at various online retailers and auction sites at relatively reasonable prices.

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This was my first Korean film. The one that started it all for me

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me too...I was much younger then their characters at the time of watching but after i graduated highschool and fell into the same situation this story had so much more meaning.

No boy crazy girls who fought over a single guy, life simply happened and we drifted apart.

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Thank you for the review. When was the movie made? 2001? (I saw you reference 2001 about some music you liked). When was the movie released, please?

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It was released on October 13, 2001.

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Oh OK, Thank you!
Also, I meant to say, "I saw you referenced 2001..." instead of "I saw you reference 2001..." Sorry.

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I, too, remember it as one of my first Korean films. It may have been playing in an indie theatre here in NYC. That's when I first starting following Bae Doona.

Thanks for a great review--the nuances you picked up on make me wanna watch it again. There goes my productivity.

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Oh my God.
Lee Yo-Won doesn't age at all.

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Thank you for another review. I had seen the movie details on wiki, but you had added more depth to the description of the movie.

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I remember this movies cinematography showing the starkness of incheon. I think up to this movie I had been watching really fluffy movies and when this started, I realized I'd found Korean film.

And I think byul.org 2 was one of the first Korean songs on my ipod. i still remember what a struggle it was to find that song. I think i found the link on some thread in soompi!

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I remember watching this movie and at the end, to "escape" from the family... when Bae Doona's character was going away... she cut her picture out from family picture and I just felt it was so sad.
My memory could be hazy but this scene stayed with me for a long long time...

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I really enjoyed this movie. I was getting into Bae Doo Na and watching any film of hers I could find and this was one of them. Very good and recommended.

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What perfect timing! I just checked this one out from the library and was planning to watch it, even though I'd never heard of it. Your review convinced me that I made a good choice :)

Thanks for your great reviews!

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sounds like it might be a good snap shot picture for that period in time

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One of my favorites and also an early one for me too. It gave me my first view of the serious ( and darker ) side of Korean drama/ film world. A much needed contrast to rom- coms and melodramas and horror that was much more easy to find in the US. I recently rewatched it and appreciated it even more. Thanks for the review.

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Love this one! That was one of the first films I reviewed on my blog (which isn't all that old, but still)... just checked, I scored it 9/10.

I love coming-of-age stories, loved the characters and actresses, the cinematography and the music too!

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This is a pretty decent friends/coming of age film.

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Well I have this movie on my pc since like forever, maybe I should go and watch it now

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Thanks for the review! I've been wanting to watch this one ^^

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No word of how good the OST, if any, is? Hmm, might save this for a rainy day painting each other's nails and ranting about life. I hope it's as great as "Sunny."

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I have the OST and reviewed it here: http://init-music.blogspot.com/2010/04/inbox-original-soundtrack.html

In short: If you like the score of the film, that's what you're mostly getting with the OST to Take Care of My Cat. The only tracks that aren't part of the score are the two Byul.org pieces.

If you like the Byul.org pieces most and want more of that instead of the score, they have an album out called
Secret Stories Heard From a Girl in an Opium Den, which includes "2" from the OST. The album is available from both iTunes and Amazon in the US and possibly other regions as well.

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This is a movie that Ms. Lee Yowon played a little bit antagonist.

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thanks to your review i'm about to watch it right now as friends related movies really hit me to the core. so i was just looking up the cast members first and read that lee eun ji committed suicide in 2005. really gutted right now. may she rest in peace

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