"Your mother leaves people... lonely."


Sae-bom (Kim So-hye) is a high school student who has been living with her mother, Yoon-hee (Kim Hee-ae), since her parents' divorce. While there is clearly love between the two, their relationship is far from sweetness and light with Yoon-hee remaining wholly uncommunicative about her premarital life and indeed her present day unhappiness.
When a personal letter addressed to Yoon-hee arrives in the mail from Japan, Sae-bom can't resist the temptation to open it, finding it's a lengthy message of love from someone called Jun, a person she's never heard of. Utterly intrigued and certain she can finally learn more about her mother and her past, she begins to hatch a plan to travel with Yoon-hee to Japan, without Yoon-hee knowing what her daughter really has in mind...


Moonlit Winter opens with a fragment of a later scene with the camera framing a train window as a wintry snowscape rushes by. This snippet in its proper context forms part a fairly short subsequent scene showing Yoon-hee and Sae-bom’s physical journey to Japan but while we’ve no way of knowing that at this early stage it still points to a journey in its own right and when combined with the two following scenes of Jun's aunt finding the letter and posting it and Sae-bom then discovering it in the mailbox alludes from the very outset to the overall story movement in a very general sense. However, Moonlit Winter is far more a psychological journey towards understanding and catharsis for all of the main characters concerned with the actual travel itself standing simply as a part and parcel necessity of a movement in mindset.
As such, while on the surface Moonlit Winter may appear as a fairly straightforward tale it is palpable emotion and viewer understanding within (especially) Yoon-hee’s personal journey towards reconciling her past relationship with Jun with the feelings of pain, guilt and shame that have filled her since - much of those coming as a result of the blinkered attitudes and perceptions of others - that gives it true and significant depth, taking it far from simplistic.

Director Lim Dae-hyung uses visual symbolism and narrative allegory throughout Moonlit Winter. In the case of Yoon-hee, for example, each mental step she takes towards realising that she not just wants but needs to travel to Japan to at least try to reconnect with Jun is accompanied by the passing of a train, most noticeably as she quits her job because her boss won’t guarantee to ‘wait for her’ should she take time off. As she walks away from the building both in indignation and (by her subsequent expression) almost contentment with her decision, a train hurtles by in the distance behind her to signify her further forward mental movement towards her goal and (hopefully) related catharsis. This symbolism works well enough for the most part even if some may justifiably feel it’s maybe over-obvious especially with the sheer number of times it’s used. However, from a personal point of view the fact it really does no more than tell us what we’re already learning from the narrative itself leaves its repeated use as little more than virtual visual exposition and whether it’s entirely necessary is to my mind somewhat questionable, in spite of it not being particularly intrusive.

If you consider Yoon-hee and Jun together (thematically, as they’re of course separated in reality) far more subtle and worthwhile symbolism is apparent, to my mind:
Yoon-hee from the outset is shown as almost entirely cut off from everything in an emotional sense and though in response to Sae-bom asking her what she lives for she says “I live for my daughter” I for one couldn’t help but feel that’s at least in part because everything else she could have and did love has been taken away. In her youth, she was forced to set aside any hope of college to get a job to make money so her brother could attend university; she was forced to undergo psychiatric therapy when her parents discovered her relationship with Jun (both these hugely, historically patriarchal ideas on the place of women in society and indeeed attitudes towards same sex relationships); and negative connotations and consequences of all of the above have pervaded her entire life since.
Similarly, Jun lives her life connecting with people around her on a surface level only, more than anything; she vehemently objects to being pushed to be introduced to a possible date; she writes letters to Yoon-hee that she has no real intention of sending; and even when a female friend attempts to say or ask something likely emotional that Jun doesn’t want to hear or answer she bluntly states “If you’re hiding something, keep it hidden” (which could equally be seen as her thought in the moment or indeed her overall belief in the wake of her past).
Repeatedly throughout Moonlit Winter Jun’s elderly aunt exasperatedly sighs “When will this snow die down?” If you consider the physical winter in Japan as an allegory for the ongoing coldness of Yoon-hee and Jun's lives and outlooks since their separation (as pointed to by all of the above), Jun's aunt's statement of such as she posts Jun's letter to Yoon-hee is perfectly prophetic for in doing so she facilitates the two reconnecting, at a distance at least, hugely increasing the chance for the emotional thaw they all yearn for to begin.

So, what of Sae-bom? Far from having just a supporting role in proceedings her character arc in desiring to learn and understand her mother and her life is equally important as any other, and though some of the barbs she levels at Yoon-hee are cutting (it could even be said callous) her desire to bond and truly relate, understand and be understood by this woman she truly looks up to (even though she'd never admit it) becomes increasingly impossible to ignore... just look at the sheer glee in her beaming smile when her uncle tells her she looks more like her mother than her father.
Everyone is hiding something from someone in Moonlit Winter, more often than not in fear of negative reaction, but it is Sae-bom’s desire to understand her mother that leads to the one wholly positive, and massively important hidden agenda above all. That is, her convincing her mother to take her to Japan, her somewhat devious plan ultimately removing the veil from everything previously hidden and finally allowing catharsis to have at least a chance of taking place, for the good of all... and you don’t get much more important than that.



Moonlit Winter may on the surface appear as a fairly simplistic tale but it is the palpable emotional depth that pervades virtually every scene that makes it ultimately wholly worthwhile.


MOONLIT WINTER (윤희에게) / 2019
Director: Lim Dae-hyung
Starring: Kim Hee-ae, Kim So-hye, Yuko Nakamura


All images © Little Big Pictures
Review © Paul Quinn