The Weight is likably off-putting. At times, the structure of writer-director Jeon Kyu-hwan’s screenplay suggests a procession of social taboos that were scribbled on a variety of index cards, tossed in the air, and arranged by how they fell. The story is so clearly contrived to be outrageous that the shock quickly burns out of it, and that’s the point. The film often suggests a very sick joke that somehow concludes with a shaggy-dog variation of “and you think you got problems?” The characters are so miserable and so overwhelmingly burdened with hopelessness that the title is eventually revealed to be quite the understatement.
The film shouldn’t really work, but Jeon never tips his hand too far in one direction. If the film were explicitly comedic, it would devolve into a tedious freak show; if it strived too hard for pathos, it would become maudlin. But the ambiguous mixture of the two tones affords the characters a quiet dignity, as Jeon puts them through their paces, but refuses to pity or condescend to them. What you’re left with is an exaggerated and poignant parable of human need that’s always this close to sliding into tragic farce.
Jung (Jo Jae-hyeon) is a hunchbacked mortician riddled with both tuberculosis and arthritis, who takes considerable pride in cleaning the bodies of the dead. The filmmaker doesn’t spell it out, but it’s clear that Jung responds to the notion of affording someone a dignity they might not have ever thought themselves capable of achieving in life. It’s Jung’s way of believing that life is capable of structure and moral order despite so much immediate evidence in his possession to the contrary: He’s appointing himself as an agent of retrospective—and, depending on your beliefs, meaningless—redemption.
Near the beginning, we see a man in a motorcycle mask (Lee Joon-hyuk) mourning someone in the back of the morgue where the work of containing a body’s messiness is kept out of the public’s view. But this is clearly a man, like Jung, who knows something of life’s irresolvable perversity: He notices another corpse, of a beautiful naked young woman, and begins to grope it while paying his respects. Soon the man is humping away at the corpse as Jung watches with stilly matter-of-fact resignation. The masked man shoves a wad of cash into Jung’s hands, but that gesture is clearly superfluous to the mortician, who knows of hell and who passes little judgment.
It’s Jung’s troubled, occasionally sexual, relationship with his transgender sister, Dong-bae (Zia), that unifies the film’s various vignettes, which occasionally update us on the travails of the motorcycle masked man as well as an assortment of prostitutes, janitors, fire fighters, and drug addicts. Dong-bae, who wants money to change herself entirely into a woman, is spiraling into an abyss of alcoholism and mechanically anonymous sex and self-loathing, and this no-exit situation climaxes with a moment of almost operatic transcendence. Jung eventually looks over Dong-bae’s dead body and cuts her penis off, performing his ultimate and most intimate act of after-the-fact benediction. This gorgeous neg-head film suggests what could have happened if Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs simultaneously rewrote a treatment of a Universal Studios monster movie, bringing its subtext to the explosively bloody surface. It’s one of a kind.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—27.