Dust and Ashes, the austere first feature drama from South Korean director Park Hee-Kwon, is built around a powerful, but ultimately underdeveloped concept.
Park Hae-su (Ahn So-yo) is an impoverished woman who’s barely earning a living. Her mother has committed suicide, and Hae-su needs money from the family life insurance policy to survive. With her home on the verge of demolition due to encroaching redevelopment (a theme that pops up again in another Reel Asian selection from South Korea this year), Hae-su has three days to frantically cover up the fact that mom’s death was a suicide, which would negate the life insurance contract.
Dust and Ashes has an outstanding and believable hook that’s ripe with nail biting drama, but too much of Park’s debut feels like artlessly wasted time. Any stress or tension is initially robbed by literally depriving Hae-su of a voice throughout much of the film’s early going, and outright killed by indulgent, leadenly symbolic, and painfully slow, drab looking tracking shots, including in-depth looks at body preparation and the cremation process.
What starts off intriguing quickly grows frustrating, and not even a subplot involving Hae-su’s attempts to reconnect with her estranged brother inject much interest. So-yo is outstanding, and Hee-Kwon is nothing but empathetic throughout, but most of Dust and Ashes is made up of filler material. This would’ve worked better as a short or with a lot more added depth and suspense.
Dust and Ashes screens online as part of the 2020 Reel Asian Film Festival from Thursday, November 12 to Thursday, November 19. All 2020 Reel Asian online screenings are geolocked to Canada. The first 100 tickets for Dust and Ashes will be available for free – while supplies last – thanks to the support of the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Toronto.