301, 302 is at its core a story about two ships passing in the night – or perhaps two ships on a collision course with each other. Song-Hee (Bang Eun-jin) in 301 is a housewife and avid amateur chef who is recently divorced. She spends much of her time trying to reach out to her neighbor in 302, Yun-Hee (Hwang Shin-hye) a writer for a health magazine who writes about food and sex though she is repulsed by both, as Song-Hee finds out when Yun-Hee keeps rejecting the elaborate meals that she has prepared for her.
Yun-Hee’s apparent anorexia is rooted in her traumatic past when she was sexually abused by her father. I don’t have enough authority to say that Yun-Hee’s anorexia is an accurate cinematic portrayal, but it seems sensitively portrayed and the arc of its origin in sexual abuse from her father to her current situation is heartbreaking. The scenes of sexual abuse are filmed in lurid, neon colors, strongly reminiscent of giallo, to emphasize the visceral impact of her memories. We also come to be temporarily disgusted with food, especially meat, with the extreme close-ups of eating and food as we flash back to her youth. When her father, a butcher, cuts meat, we can see the same expression on his face as when he abuses his daughter.
We also see Song-Hee as the seemingly picture perfect wife in flashbacks: always preparing beautiful, scrumptious meals for her husband and willing to satisfy his sexual needs. Yet Song-Hee’s overattentiveness eventually gets to him. He even has the gall to call her burdensome after she asked if he was enjoying the food one too many times. Her identity has become so enwrapped in trying to please her husband that when he starts rejecting her, she starts eating to overcome her sense of insufficiency. Their marriage is decidedly over when she goes Fatal Attraction on her husband’s dog, which he looks after more than he does his wife.
These two women could not be more different, yet they are similar in less obvious, more insidious ways. Both are victims of men and the patriarchal society that enables their abuse.
For Yun-Hee, the Confucian ideal of respect for elders is perverted into something grotesque, where she gets reduced to a mere object. For Song-Hee, even if her form of abuse is more benign, it is driven by this same patriarchal attitude. Her husband gets exactly what a traditional Korean man would want, but it turns out that when his ideal is taken to its logical extreme, it is suffocating and damaging to not only their relationship but to Song-Hee herself.
A seemingly minor but actually very telling scene occurs when Song-Hee watches TV. A variety show is on featuring the immensely popular group Seo Taiji and Boys, the progenitors of modern Korean pop music or K-pop. Apparently, the group is pranked into meeting a female fan who is overweight. They are clearly nonplussed and awkward around her. This is common in Korean TV even today where fat-shaming is rampant and has changed very little in the twenty plus years since this movie. Here, it is an accusation by society of Song-Hee that she doesn’t fit the traditional feminine ideal, even though she isn’t remotely fat to Western eyes. In this claustrophobic story, this is one of the few times that director Park Chul-soo makes a clear reference to society as a whole, mainly because he underlines it so well in Song-Hee’s relationship with her husband.
(Side note: Yang Hyun Suk is a member of Seo Taiji and Boys and would later go on to found the massive entertainment company YG Entertainment and would become the embodiment of the privileged patriarchy he rebelled against in his youth. He is currently embroiled in the Burning Sun scandal, which involved celebrities sharing videos of women undressing in bathrooms without their consent and also peddling in prostitution.)
By the middle of 301, 302, we eventually realize that both of these women had no real chance to ever connect with each other. Not only are they polar opposites in their attitudes toward foods and sex, they are also such victims of their psychological conditions (exacerbated by the society they live in) that it would be almost impossible to connect to each other in the way that they needed to. It is telling that their actions revolve around either food or sex, two things used commonly to connect with other people, but their attempts fail because they do not realize that they need a deeper connection. Their (mostly Song-Hee’s) overtures to connect with each other slowly mutate into something twisted and grisly.
Though there are some more traditionally horrific moments such as the scene with Song-hee’s dog or the very end of this movie, 301, 302 is more of a very dark comedy with tragic undertones. Director Park Chul-soo is not necessarily as well-known as his more modern countrymen Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, but he was perhaps one of the first to really bring Korean cinema to a Western audience since this was the first Korean film that would receive a release in North America. In fact, 301, 302 was remade into Compulsion starring Heather Graham and Carrie-Ann Moss, which is far more broad in its comedy and less nuanced about the relationship between the two women. Themes related to the suburban lifestyle and its impact on women and their sexuality were common in Park’s work. Even if his works seemed carnal, his view of the world easily encompassed Korean society and its struggle to modernize after decades of economic and political turmoil.
When many Westerners think of Korean cinema, they think of movies namely from a handful of directors and none before the 21st century. 301, 302 is just one of many rich, insightful and daring works that have existed in Korean cinema from its inception and one still painfully relevant today.