When a fellow fan of Duelist told me he hated M (2007), my heart sank.
But the more I read people chastising the movie, the more determined I was to like it. Call it childish faith if you will, but Duelist was so perfect in my eyes it was impossible for me to accept that Lee Myung-se could make a bad movie. I read reviews that slammed M for being all style and no substance, for being absurdly difficult to understand. And I told myself, “If I can understand William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, I jolly well am going to understand M.”
Then I watched the movie and after 45 minutes I couldn’t continue. It left me so befuddled I hated it.
Everything was so dark and confusing, and the plot so fractured and non-linear. I could not differentiate dream from reality, could not reconcile the blackness with the sudden bursts of blinding color, the frenetic movements with the freeze frames. Kang Dong-won seemed like a psycho, Lee Yeon-hee like a stalker, and Gong Hyo-jin a mere afterthought. Words made no sense, there was no story! My brain and eyes hurt from trying to absorb it all. So much for believing in Lee Myung-se.
That was last night.
This morning I continued the movie and within the first five minutes it was like someone turned on the light and suddenly the darkness disappeared. Everything became so clear. To people who complain there is no story in M, allow me to tell it to you. From end to beginning, because that’s how Lee Myung-se tells it.
[BEWARE MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW]
Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met.
He came into a hair salon to have his hair washed (and cut, maybe) and the girl attended to him. When she saw him, she blushed so hard and ran to the back of the salon to change into prettier clothes. When it was all done (his hair, I mean), they said their farewells, hesitantly, shyly, as if reluctant to part. So he asked her, “Would you like a ride (on my bike)?” She stared at him astounded, as if disbelieving that her secret wish had come true.
They went first to the beach where they watched the sun set. And they talked about many things, because he had so much to say and she was such a good listener. Then they watched a movie. When it was over, he sent her home and again it was hard to part. So they shook hands and he squeezed her hand so hard it hurt. He was embarrassed that his strength could hurt her… and then he pulled her close.
So that was how that perfect first date ended. That was how their love began.
His name was Min-woo and she was Mimi. M and M. He played the guitar and they would hum and sing together. It was really sweet, that flush of first love. He was 18, she perhaps the same age. They were happy.
But his father got into financial difficulties, was declared a bankrupt, and then died. How, we do not know. Overwhelmed, Min-woo ran away. He didn’t tell Mimi, he just left.
According to their school friends (much later), Mimi took his leaving hard. She just seemed to waste away. Then, two months after his abrupt leaving, Min-woo called Mimi and said he was back and could they meet? Yes, of course!
That day was August 20, a Sunday. It was raining hard, so she took an umbrella with her and ran to their meeting place. She couldn’t wait to see him again. Traffic was heavy but still she ran, crossing the road as fast as she could. That was how the accident happened, that was how she died.
He didn’t know why she didn’t show up. He said later (11 years later) that he tried to forget her name after that, to erase her from his memory. So the years passed and he became a successful writer, someone eagerly courted by publishers, a “big shot” to his old friends from school. He also became engaged to Eun-hye, daughter of a rich man.
But now he had the worst thing that could plague a writer: writer’s block.
Was it triggered by stress over his mother’s debts (perhaps she was still trying to pay off the money his deceased dad owed)? Was it exacerbated by the publisher’s persistent reminders to finish the book since so much money, enough to buy a house, had been advanced to him already?
He could not sleep. Or he would sleep but wake up reeling from yet another nightmare. He started hearing voices. Someone seemed to be following him. Was it… Mimi? But his friend, a detective, told him Mimi was dead. That can’t be, Min-woo protested. He had seen her, spoken to her even.
I had to watch M all the way to the end to realize this was a ghost story. Or a ghostly love story, if you like.
As soon as I grasped that, I wanted immediately to rewatch the movie from the beginning, to fill in all the gaps in that bewildering first watch. But that realization also made the second viewing more eerie.
Now I knew the Mimi who was following Min-woo was a ghost. The mysterious man with the walking cane who kept following Mimi, who made her so afraid? Surely he was the Grim Reaper himself? And the Lupin Bar in that alley? The one with a ghostly hand for a handle, the one you enter at street level and go down and down the spiral stairs, as if descending into a dungeon. Was the place even real, or just the Grim Reaper’s hovel, a figment of Min-woo’s imagination?
I believe now that all the scenes of Mimi following him, of her running away from the Grim Reaper, of their tearful farewell on the train, were the workings of his pressured but still fertile writer’s mind.
He thought he had forgotten her, but she never went away, she lived deep in the recesses of that thing called memory. Now the memories were rushing back. She was his muse then, and she would now become the book he was struggling to write.
“Less poetic, more specific,” his editor advised. But how could he be specific when he had so many holes to plug in Mimi’s story, when the past and present kept colliding, when dream and wakefulness swirled together?
He began to see Mimi in Eun-hye, to hear the former’s voice when the latter was speaking. And she, his fiancée, she could sense that he was changing, that when he looked at her it was someone else he saw. “Is it a girl?” she asked, the edge in her voice so apparent, like a knife.
How could he explain it all to her?
Explain that this pain he felt was a curse his first love had bequeathed on him, that he would always miss her so much it was like a knife slicing his brain apart, that he would cry watching a comedy, that he was about to implode? No, he couldn’t explain.
How could he explain that he was hallucinating, that he could see the ghost of his first love? No one would believe him, not the doctor he was seeing, not Eun-hye. No one could see Mimi except himself. (In the image below, Eun-hye seems to be looking straight at Mimi, but she isn’t; she’s looking past Mimi into the distance.)
M… for memory. M for madness, which is what Min-woo is hovering at the edge of. M for Min-woo’s mind, which is what this movie is all about. M for the mirrors that the master (Lee Myung-see, who else?) is so fond of using in this film. M for mesmerizing, which is the only way to describe the acting here. (I am so proud of you, Kang Dong-won, for owning this immensely demanding role. Lee Yeon-hee and Gong Hyo-jin, take a bow, too.)
And M for masterpiece.
This movie blows my mind, just like Duelist did. Technically it may be even more complex; it certainly looks that way. It’s so fantastically crafted, this visual feast, this assault on the senses, giving me yet again such a visceral high. Some scenes are so gorgeous I want to weep, like that Mars-like landscape where Min-woo and Mimi sat to watch the waves.
Water is a recurring motif here, in the rain that falls, the puddles on the ground, the seemingly formless fluidity that is Min-woo and Eun-hye’s apartment, where the walls flow into each other and the reflection from the ceiling lights turns the floor below into a pool of ripples on which Min-woo is floating. Then that definitive moment that convinces us more than words can that Min-woo is about to crack: the avalanche of water crashing down on him from the ceiling. You’re a god, Lee Myung-se. No one makes movies like you.
To my dear friend who says he hated M:
I’m going to watch this a third time. Will you join me?