A young homeless woman in Korea discovers a small shred of pleasure and humanity in the dark and affecting “Steel Flower,” written and directed by Park Suk-Young. Jeong Ha-dam stars as the nameless girl living on the edges of society and her own sanity. We first encounter her as she searches for shelter in a new city, the wheels of the rolling suitcase that holds all of her belongings creating the soundtrack of her journey, over the rough-hewn wooden planks of a pier, bumping up concrete steps.
Sound is one of the notable aesthetic and thematic elements of “Steel Flower,” and director Park uses it to an artful degree, starting with the wheels of the suitcase. Sound is how the young woman’s travels are marked through her environment, just her feet, the suitcase, the way she moves through the world with her own voice silent. Much of the camera work is handheld, harried, mimicking the nervous energy of our protagonist. The camera closely follows her feet and hands, which are the tools of her survival and her transportation. She quietly nicks leftover food from restaurant tables and lights a candle in the abandoned building in which she has made a shelter. Her entire existence is utilitarian and all of her energy goes toward her survival.
We know almost nothing about her, no backstory. Through her interactions with other people, it’s clear that she’s paralyzed by some kind of deep social awkwardness or anxiety. She can’t think on her feet or navigate social situations, and she vacillates between mute and combative. It’s unclear if this is what caused her to become homeless or if her intense solitude has led to this.
She tries to find work, and with no phone or address, traditional jobs elude her. A few people take advantage of her desperation and naïveté, exploiting her to hand out fliers or clean restaurant kitchens with no compensation for her labor. At one of these kitchens, she encounters a drunk woman who flies into a jealous rage, convinced she’s sleeping with the owner, most likely this woman’s ex. This black-hearted woman is legitimately terrifying, and this isn’t the last we see of her.
One night, our girl peers in on a tap-dancing studio, transfixed by the rhythmic beat of feet. She starts dancing on the street and in the subway station, just for fun, limbs akimbo. Her feet are transformed from mere vehicles to get her from point to point, shod in falling apart lace-ups, to a source of pleasure. When she finally earns a few bucks bussing tables, she takes a pair of shoes from the studio, leaving the cash. The scene in which she haphazardly tap dances home is the only moment of true joy in the crushingly sad and dark film, and because of that, is enormously emotionally uplifting.
The tap dancing also offers an aural element to her evolution. The suitcase wheels are replaced with the taps and stomps as her feet take on a new purpose — one of fun, not just getting through the day. Her growth is also marked by her ability to get a job, though the judgments and grudges of old demons continue to haunt and prevent her from thriving. A return to the pier where the film began results in an angry, dangerous and cathartic dance with the sea, as her destiny remains ambiguous.
This is the type of film where in the face of incredible grim bleakness and strife, a person manages to find some small moment that asserts his/her humanity, and this becomes a form of resistance to his/her own oppression. In “Steel Flower,” that is dancing, and filmmaker Park showcases this moment in a way that draws out all of its emotional intensity and power. While some of the other indignities that our protagonist faces may seem unlikely or overdone, those pale in the potency of her finding her voice in the sound of her shoes. [B+]