Fantasia 2014: ‘Steel Cold Winter’ is a bitterly earnest tale of complicated young love

fullsizephoto360211Steel Cold Winter

Written and directed  by Choi Yoon-jin

South Korea, 2013

It can be infinitely frustrating when the simplest of things causes irreparable damage to friendships, leaving people who once cherished each other at odds.  One such weapon of destruction is a rumour. People’s gullibility and frequent desire to talk about surprising, provocative information with others means that rumours are extremely difficult to contain. Once let out, be it accidentally or intentionally, the repercussions can be incalculable based on the nature of the content and its effect on the targeted individual or group. It can spread like wildfire, therefore making attempts at picking up the pieces all the more difficult, a challenge the ill-equipped protagonist is faced with in the South Korean drama Steel Cold Winter.

Seo Yoon-soo (Kim Shi-hoo) relocates with his family from Seoul to a small town in the country following a harrowingly dark episode that has left the teenage boy a shell of his former self. Now an introvert, the admiration he gets from his new classmates, who think having a friend from the big city is something pretty swanky, falls on deaf ears for the most part. That said, there is one student that catches Yoon-soo’e eyes, that being a lonely girl sitting in the back of the classroom. This same girl, Eun Hae-won (Kim Yoon-hye), skates on the frozen pond at night, hoping to distract her mind from the negative attention she receives given that her father is mentally challenged. Both social outcasts, Yoon-soo and Hae-won form a delicate bond, soon falling in love with one another. Their precious unison is challenged however in the days following the unexpected death of her father. It looks to be murder, which sets the rumour mill running…

Writer-director Choi Yoon-jin serves up a challenging if slightly messy drama with, at its centre, two damaged individuals forced to wrestle the odds on two separate but linked fronts. On the one hand both Yoon-soo and Hae-won find themselves at a considerable distance from society. Their social skills have been severely hampered for reasons beyond their control although the sources of the pain afflicting them are reasonably different. Yoon-soo is simply unwilling to engage with regular teens his age because of his recent depression. Hae-won may have, at one point, wanted to be part of a circle of friends but due to her family’s dubious standing in the community she is considered a pariah, shunned by most and feared by others. Rumours circulate about her possibly being a vampire, a witch, a mind reader and even a sexual slave to her father, only further solidifying her status as a freak even though she actually hasn’t done anything to earn such an unenviable reputation.

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On the other hand their newfound love is challenged early whereupon Hae-won’s father is found dead one morning. Yoon-soo, having seen Hae-won enter her father’s room with a knife the night before the corpse is discovered, is himself the instigator of a rumour centering on his girlfriend having killed her own father to free herself from the shackles of the stigma associated with her. While their rift is short lived, the damage has already been done: an intense police investigation compels Yoon-soo forced to adopt extreme measures to shield the one he loves from serving time for a crime she never committed. Without giving too much away, this would be the second time Yoo-soo finds himself in a situation where a rumour leads directly leads to terrible consequences. Damage control in these instances is never a simple matter and irrespective of how active one is in trying to minimize the psychological and emotional abuse resulting from a destructive rumour, the challenges evolved at an alarming rate. Even so, Yoon-soo’s obsession to repel and destroy all problems created by the suspicions (efforts that provide the film some of its genre-centric moments) is a testament to how some people dogmatically try to avoid making the same mistake twice.

Notwithstanding a third act that comes across as laborious for how it strives to resolve the plot, Steel Cold Winter is fittingly titled character study, guided by reserved but highly efficient direction that helps set the film’s deliberate pace. In many ways the film is cold, both in tone and for its wintry setting. Even the few wisecracks tossed by certain peripheral characters about the strangeness of the happenings do little to attenuate the overall serious mood Choi’s picture steeps itself in. Both Hae-won and Yoon-soo are cold people, not because they are heartless but rather because the circumstances of their social standings have left them cold towards the world at large. Even their interactions together are slow and rife with hesitation. There is a yearning to be emotionally touched but recent history convinces them to keep on guard in the event that their efforts backfire.

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The performances of the two leads are excellent. Kim Yoon-hye and Kim Shi-hoo are giving minimal dialogue to work with. Their looks and expressions, the latter are also limited in range, are what do most of the communicating. Spoken words are more hushed than said aloud. Such reserved characters could have easily led to two lifeless performances, but thankfully both leads are more than up to the task of making their roles extraordinarily compelling for their intimacy. Just as most people around them know very little about Yoon-soo and Hae-won, the audience is privy to their inner workings and gets to relish in their blossoming if complicated romance.

Director Choi takes a roundabout way to finally conclude the picture, unfortunately making the last 20 minutes or so a bit clunky. While by no means perfect, Steel Cold Winter is a refreshing, frank look at isolation, the consequences of silly rumours and one’s adamant desire to squash said consequences. It really is a potent little film, and that’s no rumour.

-Edgar Chaput

Please visit the official website of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

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