"You ungrateful whore! If you're so fu*king cold why don't you just burn the whole damn building down!..."
Geun-soon (Kim Ju-yeon) is one of a group of sex workers whose livelihood is soon to be decimated by changes in Korean law relating to prostitution. While her work colleagues are already making plans to continue their profession elsewhere - some even abroad - the news that Geun-soon has contracted an STD puts even that possibility in jeopardy for her, and though she clearly despises her job - offering her body for money, only grudgingly - the ever-decreasing circles of her options leave her with little room for hope and no reason to think less disdainfully of her boss, her 'clients' (or her life) than others think of her.
As Geun-soon sits in the window-front of the brothel, under the harsh intrusive glare of lights and the endless gaze of passersby, a young and seemingly depessed girl of school age (Hwang Min-a) catches her eye at a nearby market stall. Recognising another lost soul with a similarly ongoing problem, Geun-soon decides to do what she can to help.
However, neither is aware of just how kindred their spirits really are...
The fact that a great many Korean films nowadays have a running time reaching, and even often exceeding, two hours is to my mind very much a double-edged sword for Korean cinema as a whole. For, while this continuing trend (ideally) allows for extra time to be afforded to thematic depth and/or numbers, equally increased is the risk that film companies will (certainly in the case of larger budget films and blockbusters) attempt to force elements aimed at mass-market appeal into narratives that neither need nor, in fact, benefit from them.
Conversely, short films by their very nature do not have the luxury of time on their side and, more often than not, are actually stronger as a result of the limits inherent to them; with the increased likelihood of them being independent 'labours of love' also making them far more likely to be a more accurate representation of the director's original vision.
In the past couple of years, a number of Korean shorts have resolutely ensconced themselves in my personal list of utterly unmissable films - 'Night Fishing' (directed by Park Chan-wook); 'Remember O Goddess' (directed by Yoon-jung Lee); and 'A Moment' (directed by Oh In-chun), to name but three - and it is without any hesitation whatsoever that I will from this point on add the sublime ‘Miss Longlegs’ to any such future short film discussions.
From the very first seconds of its 21-minute running time, ‘Miss Longlegs’ makes its aim abundantly clear; to juxtapose, compare, contrast and dissect others’ perceptions of these 'ladies of the night' with who they really are as people:
As the camera traverses down a street with numerous wall-sized windows behind which the prostitutes await and entice customers, we are immediately introduced to the invasive glare of the girls’ ‘rooms’ in stark contrast to the darkness of the surrounding area, leading us to largely feel that we’re looking at a situation more akin to caged animals on public show in a kind of zoo than watching women simply working to live.
This idea carries through to both the treatment of Geun-soon and her colleagues by their boss as little more than sub-human meat and to their calls to would-be punters in the street, almost begging them to stare and throw a ‘morsel’ - in this case, money.
Even (or, more accurately, especially) the unnamed schoolgirl whose interaction with Geun-soon is the centrepiece of the entire narrative is initially shown to treat these women with unthinking, uncaring disgust and, as such, as her attitude is slowly altered we begin to grippingly delve into the many similarities between her and the titular Miss Longlegs (Geun-soon), rather than their few obvious differences.
Not only that, but ‘Miss Longlegs’ repeatedly underlines the fact that outward appearances are seldom what they seem - be it Geun-soon’s wig falling off to reveal her cropped hair underneath; her taking off her hugely platformed shoes and inadvertently proving that she’s not a "Miss Longlegs" in truth at all; or even in her work colleague choosing to light a cigarette on a shrine candle outwardly screaming that she doesn’t care what people think of (or say about) her, when just a few moments later she shows in her own inimitable fashion that she won't just stand still when people disrespect her - combining with all of the above and the concluding scene to say that these women (and in fact all of us) are simply normal human beings trying to get by in any way we can; the same as anyone and everyone.
As already stated, depending on your point of view time can either be seen an enemy of a short film or indeed a friend and in the case of ‘Miss Longlegs’ I strongly feel the latter is the case. For, not a second of screen time is wasted or unnecessary; no padding whatsoever is in evidence; and the film’s gentle pacing is perfectly set by the needs of the narrative itself.
With virtually every frame counting towards the greater picture overall, 'Miss Longlegs' wisely shows without exposition, delving without unneeded explanation, and by the time the credits role we completely understand the beautifully realised main characters inside and out and, even more than that, we truly feel for them. This character empathy - regardless of who we are or what we do - is added to further by the very similarities within humanity that are ultimately shown and, as such, the gentle humour of everyday situations is used throughout to great effect. With nothing being overtly stated or over-emphasised in any way, each smile-inducing moment (from Geun-soon's various 'animal' alarms; to her friend’s reaction to being ordered to turn the level of the room heater down; etc. etc. etc.) is all the more believable in its almost passing nature.
Of course, as in almost any story dealing with sex workers and prostitution there is both nudity and profanity present in ‘Miss Longlegs’ but, here too, less is so much more and regardless of whether the fleeting adult content is so as a result of deliberate design; time constraints; or both, the effect is the same - yet more deftly and perfectly realised moments that add massively to both their respective scenes and the overall story, as a whole.
Yes, ‘Miss Longlegs’ is a very simple story at its core, but it is also deceptively so and, like the characters themselves, its underlying depth is far, far greater than would be assumed from a cursory glance.
Finally, there is a somewhat surreal scene at around three-quarters of the way through ‘Miss Longlegs’ that could be said to sum up the film’s themes to a tee: A painted lady (both literally and in terms of her profession) dressed only in skimpy underwear performs a twisted mime in front of Geun-soon’s window in protest against the change in prostitution law. To my mind, her contorted dance; her voiceless demonstrations of pain against the harsh Korean weather/elements; her eyes searching out Geun-soon in the hope of understanding; and her subsequent, final ‘rescue’ by those around her says absolutely everything… and more.
Kim Ju-yeon, Hwang Min-a
It is unlikley that 'Miss Longlegs' will appear on DVD in the forseeable future but I urge you to keep an eye out for its appearance at film festivals. For, in short, 'Miss Longlegs' not only deserves but needs to be seen.
'Miss Longlegs’ is, at its core, a simple story but one which is also deceptively so and, like the characters themselves, its underlying depth is far, far greater than that assumed from a cursory glance. Ultimately, what ‘Miss Longlegs’ deftly states will stay with you almost infinitely longer than its 21-minute running time.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Film Council, KoBiz and film company AMUSE for allowing me to watch and rewatch 'Miss Longlegs' for the purposes of this review.