Money is always tight in Jeong Go-woon’s comedy-drama about the high cost of living.
“I’m homeless, not mindless.”
Living in the city can be tough, especially for young people fresh out of education, with little job experience. And this is felt especially strong in our protagonist, Mi-so (Esom): a young woman who works part-time as a maid for pittance and lives in a miniscule shoebox apartment for an extortionate amount. Her only pleasures in life are smoking, drinking whisky and Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong), her boyfriend. Things haven’t been great lately, with the price of rent and cigarettes increasing, she is forced to make some serious cuts. She looks at her finances and decides she doesn’t want to pay rent anymore. So she packs all her belongings into a suitcase, and leaves.
Unable to live with her boyfriend – who is staying in a men’s only dorm – she instead makes a list of old friends, members of a band she used to be in, and goes one by one to each of them, hoping to find places to crash for the night. During that time, she starts to reconnect with them, realising how little she’d seen them over years, how much they’ve all grown, and how money has affected them – for better, or for worse.
Microhabitat touches upon a lot of issues felt by people – especially young adults – who live in large, metropolitan areas like Seoul or London. Rent and the general cost of living in major cities has always been a huge issue, with companies and governments doing the bare minimum to help through slightly raised minimum wages. It’s a pressure that plenty of people experience on a daily level, but Microhabitat gives us another way to view it. Through Mi-So we have a protagonist who is affected by it but refuses to let herself be changed because of it. The main character in Dream Home went on a killing spree, but Mi-So is perfectly content rolling with the punches, budgeting as she needs to, until things fall into place.
What makes this movie different from the others is that writer-director Jeon Go-woon never tries to preach. Sure it sucks that rent is so high in the city, but she creates in Mi-So (and less so but also a bit in Han-sol) a character who stubbornly refuses to stop her little habits while never one-sidedly telling the audience that she’s right or she’s wrong for those choices. On one hand, Mi-So is right to not let go of the things she loves just because of monetary concerns – this is an issue many people have had to deal with – but her friends make a point that she’s homeless and even acting a little selfishly. Additionally, like cigarettes and whisky, Mi-So just can’t quit the city she’s in. It’s too much a part of her now.
Microhabitat is Jeon’s debut feature, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Her skill behind the camera feels well-honed already and the film isn’t bogged down by unnecessary scenes or the sort of pointless artistic peacocking you sometimes see. There’s nothing about Microhabitat that suggests it isn’t the work of someone with years of experience. Jeon knows how to get the right, subtle performances from her cast (Esom and Ahn Jae-hong have such great chemistry that we fully buy them as a devoted couple), and how to get the atmosphere across through fairly still shots drenched in deep, autumnal colours.
There’s nothing in Microhabitat that breaks new ground, and it never sets out to be bigger than it is; this is where it succeeds the most and finds its place amongst Korea’s often excellent slice-of-life dramas. Instead, Jeon creates a story that’s small in scope but huge in character, both literally and figuratively, and gives us a peek into the life of one girl who’s unsure where she’s headed, but is extremely confident in it nonetheless. Bolstered by a hugely likeable supporting cast, Microhabitat makes for warm, comfortable viewing. Perfect if you’re out on your ass in the middle of winter.
Verdict: Jeon Go-woon’s directorial debut is hugely endearing, very sweet and surprisingly poignant.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Sex: 0/10. Way too cold for that.
Habitats: Like 8
Must-haves in an apartment: A window. Electricity is a maybe.
Appropriate offering for staying at someone’s house: Eggs
Hotel California: You can never leave.
Also known as:소공녀; So-gong-nyeo; (lit. A Little Princess)
Director: Jeon Go-woon
Writer: Jeon Go-woon
Esom – Mi-So
Ahn Jae-hong – Han-sol
Choi Deok-moon – Kim Rok-yi
Kim Jae-hwa – Choi Jeong-mi
Kim Gook-hee – Jeong Hyeon-jeong
Lee Sung-wook – Dae-yong
Kang Jin-ah – Choi Moon-yeong
Cho Soo-hyang – Min-ji
Kim Ye-eun – Jae-kyung