Having its Canadian premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, director/co-writer Yi Ok-seop’s Maggie starts with a Seoul hospital engulfed in scandal, as photographic evidence is discovered of two people having sex in the X-ray machine. The next day, just about all the hospital employees stay home from work, because they all think the picture is theirs. One of the few people to show up is young nurse Yoon-young (Lee Joo-young), who thinks (erroneously) the photo is of her and her shiftless boyfriend. Yoon-young, at least, has the decency to own up to what she thinks is her mistake in person. From there, Maggie makes a turn from for the fast and loose, ditching plot lines and picking others up in a highly episodic fashion. There’s a gorilla, a childhood story of cruel children involving a trampoline, a relationship in peril, and mysterious sinkholes opening up across Seoul.
Oh, and there’s also the film’s namesake: Maggie, the narrator of the film. She is a catfish. (“Megi” is the Korean word for that particular fish.)
Speaking through a translator at Fantasia, director Yi spoke about some of the myriad influences that came together in Maggie, some of them directly from her own life. “At the time I was making Maggie, I also had to find a place to live,” as did the main character. “I also saw this picture on the Internet where there is a convenience store, like a 7/11, and right in front of the door where there was a big sinkhole. I don’t know if it was photoshopped or not, but I felt that this is what our youth is going through. You open the door, you come out, and you don’t know what’s there. But you’re going to fall into the pit. That’s the life of youth in Korea right now.”
In Maggie, the arrival of the sinkholes herald glee among Seoul’s male youths, including Yoon-young’s boyfriend, as the city’s new need for construction workers means a rash of new jobs. The difficulty of building trusting relationships, in addition to finding professional direction, is shot throughout Maggie. If a film as diffuse as this has one throughline, it’s the struggles faced by Korea’s youth to find their place in a society that seems to have little room for them.
Director Yi’s choice of narrator—a literal fish—feeds directly into this message. Maggie, left behind in the hospital by a patient and subsequently adopted as a quasi-pet for a few of its remaining denizens, can detect the arrival of the sinkholes before they happen, in the same way that catfish can supposedly detect earthquakes. Maggie “st just a fish, but it looks kind of wise, and it’s so sensitive in a way of like predicting something that humans cannot,” says director Yi. “When the danger comes, it will know, and it will let us know so we can make the change.”
Maggie is an observer—and it’s that quality, director Yi thinks, that the youth of Korea needs, not someone to burst in and try to solve their problems. “Thinks that the solution for the youth is what Maggie does. Just observe them, watch them closely enough to see what’s going on between them instead of trying to jump into and solve something, because that’s not going to make much change. Just observing what they’re doing is the first step.”
A Korean release date for Maggie tentatively set for this September.