All About Leaving
I think I can confess without trepidation here that my liking for Films With Subtitles comes not out of a globe-trotting cinematic aesthetic but has rather more to do with the fact that, in younger days, they really pissed off other members of the family. (of course, once upon a time, subtitled foreign films meant naughtiness late at night on Channel 4, a psychological connection that remains strong)

With my inverted snobbery already on display here, now would be a good time too to reveal my whinging annoyance at seeing BBC Four employing Jonathan Ross to chair a panel on 'Foreign Films'; partly because the idea of Ross being seen as anyone's premier choice to wax intellectual on any subject other than defunct sitcoms he once was an extra in is truly horrifying; but mostly because of the term 'Foreign Film' itself is bizarre, up there with 'World Music' - i.bloody.e - everywhere is foreign, and the clumsy classification of cinema on the basis of what language its cast and crew happen to be native in automatically conjurs up (ill-deserved?) stereotypes of 'Sight and Sound'. It separates 'us' from 'them', and in the process hints at the cultural self-hatred 'we' supposedly or actually feel when we compare ourselves, our film industry, our cultural life to those of France, the Orient and the like.

'Take Care of My Cat', the film I tuned into that channel to watch (only getting the chance when I babysit these days), began quietly enough. We are quickly introduced to a group of five girls, clearly celebrating the end of their school life in South Korea. I actually watched the whole film happily believing it to be set in Japan, which gives you an idea of my geographical ineptitude - so then, 'Sight and Sound' stereotype One. Here is a different country, but the human drama contained within is universal. And so it is, as, without wanting to or even being initially aware of it, the five friends drift apart.

Each of the friends seem to represent an aspect of the modern world's/modern youth's frustrations. One gets a job as a 'Low Wage Earner', a kind of general office dogsbody, who arrives early to wistfully have a go in the boss' chair and who shops for clothes at the weekend. One works for the family business, resentment seething over familial obligations and longing to cut those ties with the past. Another pair are identical twins, the apparent comic relief who quite happily get by making jewellry and watching lurid reality television. And the fifth is so dismayed by life that she retreats gradually from the world, at first into her intricate drawings, then by befriending a pet cat, and finally by refusing to speak atall.

The cat that the title refers to is passed around from friend to friend in a symbolic parallel to the changing dynamic between the friends ('Sight and Sound' stereotype Two - this is something 'They' do so much more subtley than 'Us', and if a Yank does it good it's only because he's copying Kurosawa ). A missed lunch meeting takes on an uncomfortably treacherous aspect as we see the jilted friend waiting listlessly at a cafe table, and of course "something came up at work", or words to that effect. They start realising that they're different people with different tastes and ambitions - "Why would you want to go to University?", "It must be boring for you, doing these drawings". Text messaging becomes more important to them, a sure sign they're buggered. Eventually, they all meet up again and it ends in argument, one of them leaving in a huff only to realise God has a punchline up his sleeve - her house, a rickety old shack she shared with a mother and grandmother, has caved in.

Each of the young women are centre stage when the camera concentrates on the strands of their own life, allowing a sense of isolation to creep up unnervingly on the viewer. "Just because someone leaves you," says one, talking to a boy outside the circle, " doesn't mean they don't like you." The boy, a budding poet with cerebal palsy, is concerned that, having finished transcribing his poems, he will leave her just like all his other helpers have. He isn't convinced by her statement. It is sadly all too obvious that neither does she.

What can they do about this state of affairs then? If this were a British or American film it would no doubt end happily (stereotype Three - 'Mike Leigh etc can count as European...'), happy tears shed as the friends are reuinted, possibly using that tawdry website of the same name. But this is a Film With Subtitles and is therefore all about Real Life (stereotype Four, with a side-helping of "a cliche must be true or it wouldn't be a cliche"). They don't get back together. Well, two do. The office worker is working on her English and befriending the boss - "You can't be a low wage earner forever." Implication - her future is assured. The comedy twins are last seen bickering happily between themselves. Implication - they'll get by as they always have. It's the twins who are the last to be asked to take care of the cat, as two of the friends decide to leave their past behind and travel abroad to a new life. The one who refused to speak gets her voice back, the frustrated family member cuts out her picture from the family portrait - actually the film's most haunting image, or non-image. They head to the airport, look up at the departure screens, make their choice, turn and walk.

The film's final message - the modern world is all about leaving. But then mabye it always has.

© 2004David O MacGowan