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Movie Review: Members of the Funeral at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2009

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Members of the Funeral is a movie with big ideas and issues that are not well-served by the filmmaking. Director Baek Seung-Bin has tacked together an undoubtedly complex film but it's a bit of a mess, with stories interweaving in the most awkward manner. Its bleak, sometimes darkly comedic tone only distances the audience from the emotion.


Starting off at what we soon work out is the funeral of a teenage boy, Members of the Funeral explores how one family – father, son, and daughter – knew the deceased, shown through alternating flashbacks that are woven together.

Members of the Funeral is set up in such a way that we have to peace the narrative together ourselves. It withholds such information as when each flashback takes place (although recurring title cards set it in stages), forcing us to work out which one comes before which and why. It's a technique that can sometimes work in the right hands, but first-time writer/director Baek Seung-Bin's inexperience shows as the whole thing feels like a few puzzle pieces are missing, and the picture on the box is faded.

The name of the movie comes from the deceased boy's unfinished novel which we see in the process of being written throughout and across the flashbacks of the mother, father, and daughter. It's so distant and unclear that it's even questionable whether a lot of what we see is actually what took place, or is it just part of the boy's novel? It's presumably based on his experiences, but it's never clear if it all is or only certain parts are. It could be argued that's part of the experience, but it confuses more than it works.

There's an attempt at mixing dark humour with serious drama going on here, and it only intermittently works. The darkness – both of the humour and the drama – sets a bleak tone (which is added to by the plot point of the daughter being obsessed with photographing dead animals, for example) which keeps the film restrained. Just when a potentially emotional moment arises, the darkness of the whole thing doesn't allow the audience to truly feel it.

There's also a distinct air of pretentiousness about the proceedings, with  constant literary references that will go over the heads of most, to a general feeling that the film is looking down on us if we don't "get" every second of it. The film's dragging, sluggish pace doesn't make it the most entertaining of watches either, not that that's what a movie always has to be. But it also shouldn't be a bore, and for the most part that's what Members of a Funeral is.

I'm not going to say that the movie is a complete waste of time, because it's not. The performances are brilliant throughout, and the first-time writer/director certainly shows some great visual flair. Those who are not familiar with the darker side of cinema may be shocked by some of its content, too; in particular, a scene in which a grieving mother beats on the chest of her dead son's body, thinking that he's still alive after he spit up some sick, is particularly eye-opening. Its near-obsession with death and everything else dark sometimes works in its favour, primarily by setting it apart from some of the safer family melodramas. Think Six Feet Under, set in Korea, slightly less morbid, and without as much sex.

Everything about the story set up within Members of the Funeral would lead you to think that it would be an emotional, perhaps distressing, film to experience. Although the latter is the case in its more shocking scenes, it's not for the right reasons. Emotionality and identification with the characters is diminished when the tone is so macabre, and the feel is so bland. We get dropped into the story at a restaurant table surrounded by father, wife, and daughter after a funeral, and none of them know just how connected they are through the life of the deceased. With the fractured structure of the film's narrative, by film's end it's never all that clear to the viewer, either.

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