In a corporate world made of glass, steel, and concrete, Jeon Gye-soo’s atmospheric Korean language film Vertigo captures the agony of one woman’s emotional and physical isolation and the slow-budding connection she makes with a high rise window washer contracted to clean the windows at her place of work.
Seo-young (Chun Woo-hee; The Wailing) arrives at Landmark Tower each day, a 70-story skyscraper, to fulfill her role as a designer doing contract work in a corporate environment. On the outside, Seo-young looks like a competent, albeit quiet, employee, but she harbors plentiful secrets. She’s having an affair with the most eligible bachelor on her team, Jin Soo (Yoo Teo; Leto), who is keeping their romance hush-hush for an unnamed reason. Seo-young’s only relationship outside of work is a codependent mother who uses her empathetic daughter as a piggy bank and as an emotional dumping ground. Even worse, Seo-young suffers from debilitating tinnitus, resulting in vertigo, nausea, and dizzy spells. The cold and clinical corporate culture at the office keeps her from telling anyone about her condition, especially with contract renewals coming up. So she endures in silence, living for the infrequent lunches and hurried sexual encounters she enjoys with her unavailable lover.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Gwan-woo (Jeon Jae-kwang) begins working at Landmark Tower as part of a window washing team assigned to make the outside of the skyscraper sparkle. A sensitive soul with a difficult home life, Gwan-woo feels an unexplained connection to Seo-young after he witnesses her having a dizzy spell through the window. This encounter ignites a spark in Gwan-woo’s heart, and he begins to watch her from a distance, acting as a secret guardian angel. As the little happiness Seo-young has begins to fall apart, Gwan-woo’s tender and protective gaze may offer the harbor she needs to feel seen at last.
Chun Woo-hee as Seo-young grabs the attention from the get-go. Her expressive eyes reveal the anguish of her physical and emotional pain, as well as the rapturous joy she feels at the slightest attention from Jin Soo. Some of the most powerful scenes of the film contain no dialogue and just show medium to close up shots of Seo-young’s face and eyes. Seo-young’s empathetic nature makes it easy for others to talk to her, and her willingness to listen to others’ problems silently, with nothing in return, provides insight into why she remains unseen. Seo-young observes and sees everything, while the people around her are often unaware of anything other than their own problems and viewpoints.
Well-crafted visual effects and sound design heighten the strength of Chun Woo-hee’s performance and offer viewers a glimpse into Seo-young’s painful dizzy spells and vertigo. The camera captures the way solid images blur and make it difficult for her eyes to focus. At the same time, her sense of hearing grows more acute, and the soft background noises that all offices have become painfully loud in her ears: papers shuffling, mouths coughing, voices talking. Seo-young can hear all noises, including background ones, equally, creating a hornet’s nest of disorienting chaos around her head.
Jeon Jae-kwan as Gwan-woo proves himself to be Chun Woo-hee’s equal in his performance, offering similar depth in his gazes and facial expressions. Gwan-woo’s character offers an interesting contrast with Seo-young. Like Seo-young, Gwan-woo comes from a challenging family situation, acting as caretaker of his father and mourning the loss of his recently deceased sister. Seo-young’s condition makes her dizzy looking down from the tower, but Gwan-woo has no fear of heights. When he’s not washing windows from skyscrapers, he holds a part-time gig at the Landmark Tower mall as a silent mime, sitting on a tall perch overlooking the bookstore. Being on top of the world offers a reprieve from the pain of his circumstance. Gwan-woo’s ardent obsession for Seo-young comes from a heart that recognizes longing, and Jeon Jae-kwan’s performance offers insight into his pull towards her.
While the slow-burning romance between Seo-young and Gwan-woo is the central plotline the movie follows, the backdrop of the film offers commentary about South Korean corporate culture. In the world depicted, the staff are treated as positions and not people. A less-than-average review means termination. Female employees are treated as secondary citizens and are easy targets for sexual harassment. Seo-young arrives early to brew coffee and do secretarial duties, even though she’s a designer. The women at this office have no job security, and feel they have to take on submissive qualities to be seen as valuable. And in this place where there are no promises, it’s easy to feel unseen and insignificant.
Cinematographer Lee Seung-eun creates the urban setting of the film through a stunning combination of light and strategic camera angles. The emphasis on the outdoor landscape remains dominant throughout. Even when part of the story takes place indoors, the eye is drawn to what is happening outside the windows. The camera emphasizes the relative height of things to one another. Characters often look up or down, depending on their vertical position in the concrete jungle. The cityscapes, which emulate structure, compression, and rigidity, contrast sharply with the sky above the fray, which boasts movement, freedom, and ephemeral moments of beauty.
Jeon Gye-soo, who both directed and wrote the screenplay, wants viewers to notice the weather conditions outside, as evidenced by the periodic reports that appear in letters on the screen.: “Thursday, September 27th: Sunny”; “October 22: Typhoon advisory.” These updates operate as bookmarks and serve in multiple ways. On the one hand, viewers observe the passing of time and can create a timeline to map Seo-young’s emotional journey. Viewers will also find their attention drawn to the air outside, and the movie’s emphasis on viewing things from the heights. On a deeper level, however, the weather report draws our attention to the mutable and volatile nature of the outdoor conditions. Seo-young has learned to expect the worst out of life, and she experiences an emotional rollercoaster ride that resembles the weather reports. What Seo-young really craves is a safe harbor from the storms of life, but finding that is as unpredictable as the weather.
The film runs a little long and, at times, tips into melodrama. The rules of the romance genre require that viewers experience believable suspense. We have to experience a moment of crisis, during which we wonder if the couple will make it, in order to make the final reunion sweet. However, Vertigo includes several such moments, which causes the story to drag. In spite of this flaw, Jeon-Gye-soo’s Vertigo offers a moving and sweet tale of two unmoored humans who find a place to weather the storm in each other.
Screened during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Vertigo festival website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.