It’s rare to find a film that is both refreshingly wacky and steeped in its own convoluted sense of meaning. That is, however, the easiest way to pin down Yi Ok-seop’s debut feature Maggie—an otherwise indescribable film that throws you into its artifice without any explanation in hopes that you’ll stick around.
Maggie, which just got a special mention for the “New Flesh” award for best first feature at Fantasia Fest, is not only worth sticking around for—but you will likely find yourself wanting to stay and solve the mysteries hidden in Okseop’s lucid fiction for as long as you can.
Set in a hospital in Seoul, Maggie hits the ground running with its unconventionality after the discovery of x-ray photographs of two employees having sex sets off a widespread panic. The administration wants to find out who is in the photo, and the coupled doctors and nurses are all afraid that it could be them.
One of the couples is Nurse Yoon Young (Lee Juyeong) and her loafer boyfriend Sung-won (Koo Kyo-hwan); who comically hold up the x-ray to their bodies in attempts to confirm their fears with no luck. Yoon Young decides to quit the hospital in shame only to find out that everyone else has called in sick, except for her and her boss Dr. Lee (Mun So-ri).
The scandal snowballs into much larger themes of faith, lies and fear; especially as it pertains to interpersonal relationships. Dr. Lee grapples with the loss of trust from the hospital staff, which is emphasized after a pivotal moment of her childhood made her lose faith in other people and built up a wall. Conversely, Yoon Young tries to believe in people and be optimistic—but is confronted with lies from everyone around her, especially her boyfriend.
While Yoon Young and Dr. Lee try to reconcile with their relationships to other people, the film indulges in its own line of magical realism. Maggie, for example, comes from the name of the film’s narrator—an omniscient and all-powerful catfish that Yoon Young confides in. Maggie is also assumed to be the one causing recent and unexplained appearances of catastrophic sinkholes in the streets of Seoul.
“When we fall into a pit, what we need to do is not dig any further but quickly climb out,” reads a Post-It note near a small sinkhole Yoon Young comes across. Yoon Young feels stuck—in her job, her relationship, in her life in general—as if she’s in the bottom of an endless pit. But she ignores the message and chooses to not think about it—but the sinkholes only grow larger and larger until she can no longer run away from her unhappiness.
Maggie does not ease you into this—if anything, a first watch can be deeply disorienting, unsettling and confusing. But once the convoluted layers are peeled back just a little, there is truly something marvelous being said about human relationships and the importance of trust.
Throughout the film, the audience sees Yoon Young and Sung-won’s relationship fall apart because it is built on a foundation of distrust and small, seemingly inconsequential lies that build up over time. How Ok-seop distances them from one another and ultimately ends their narrative arc is just short of brilliant, heavily contrasting from how relationships are depicted onscreen.
Ok-seop’s directorial vision is refreshing and she is cementing herself as a filmmaker to watch with a distinct point of view. She is able to craft a feature that is funny, full of mesmerizing cinematography and an impossible nostalgia for a time and a place that doesn’t quite exist. It’s a weirdly wonderful film made for the oddballs and the over-thinkers of the world.