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Sang-il Lee's Wandering surprises and challenges its audience

Arron reviews Sang-il Lee's Wandering, seen as part of The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme. He highlights the difficult subject matter of the film and its place in cinema.

By Arron Kennon, Second Year, English

(Trigger Warning – Paedophilia, Sexual Abuse, Assault)

Wandering, directed by Sang-il Lee, came to the Watershed last Sunday as part of The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2023. Before the film began, a video of Sang-il Lee was played, requesting that the audience approach the film with an open mind, not to bring pre-existing cultural prejudices, and to expect to be challenged. It was safe to say that after this, I was awaiting a film which explored moral ambiguities. I did not, however, expect to encounter a film which seemed to try and provoke sympathy for a grown man who ‘likes little girls’.

Wandering (2022) // Gaga Corporation and IMDB

The film begins when 9-year-old Sarasa (Tamaki Shiratori) is approached by 19-year-old student Fumi (Tôri Matsuzaka), who provides her shelter from the rain with his umbrella. Fumi takes her into his home, and upon Sarasa’s request, unhappy with her life at her own home, she stays there for some time. Fumi makes it clear that she can leave at any time, and a bond forms between them that is platonic and caring.

One day the police find them and take Fumi to jail for abduction and assumed sexual assault. 15 years later, they meet again by chance, and the film follows Sarasa (now played by Suzo Hirose) as she tries to come to terms with what feelings she may have for Fumi, the reality of her controlling and later abusive fiancé (Ryûsei Yokohama), and the sexual abuse she was subjected to as a child by her older cousin.

Wandering (2022) // Gaga Corporation and IMDB

Wandering’s predominant concern is exposing the tendency to define someone by their past. Sarasa’s fiancé takes on the patronizing role as Sarasa’s protector and provider, despite her pleas that she does not want to be labelled as a ‘victim’ in perpetuity. Her friends tiptoe around her to try and avoid triggering any past memories. It is this special treatment, however, that only acts as a barrier for Sarasa in her quest to live a normal life.

Where Sarasa is trying to escape being perceived as a victim, Fumi tries to escape his label as a paedophile. Fumi is clearly horrified by his sexual inclination. He attributes it to being seen as a failure by his mother when he was a child, a feeling he is unable to shake off and therefore, his sexuality has not progressed beyond childhood, though this theory is hardly watertight.

When we encounter him 15 years after he is taken to jail, he is certainly portrayed to be kind, compassionate, and has made an effort to be a properly functioning man who is married to an adult woman.

Wandering (2022) // Gaga Corporation and IMDB

It seems that the film presents a world which, in its own terms, evokes sympathy for Fumi as he strives to resist his sexuality. However, it’s a world which does not quite map onto reality.

Granted, Sarasa was happiest when she stayed with Fumi, and he certainly did nothing to harm her. But can we really expect to forget his actions before meeting Sarasa? Though they are never explained, they are serious enough for Fumi to want to ‘take them to his grave’.

Similarly, can we really separate the feelings that adult Sarasa has for Fumi from the inevitable grooming involved in the inescapable power dynamic between a 19 and 9-year-old?

Wandering (2022) // Gaga Corporation and IMDB

That being said, the film is clearly a product of a team who treats their craft with care and expertise. The acting is strong across the board, but 13-year-old Tamaki Shiratori takes the spotlight. Her ability to seamlessly navigate emotions of joy, heartbreak and fear was nothing short of remarkable, given her young age.

The cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo (from Parasite) does not disappoint. The colours are perfectly graded, the lighting is deft, and the framing and camerawork capture the beauty of both the urban and natural settings. This is competently accompanied by the score, where the string-heavy arrangements swell and wane along with the emotional drama.

It is easy to see why Sang-il Lee felt it necessary to create the video which was played to the audience. There was certainly a valid message within this extremely challenging film: People deserve the chance to move on from their past. I’m just not convinced he has chosen the most appropriate way to express it.

Featured Image: Gaga Corporation and IMDB

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