In The Fisher King, we watch as a painfully lonely woman named Lydia, played by Amanda Plummer, finds the courage to hope that the man pledging his love to her is speaking the truth. She’s been hurt before. But she is brave. Trembling, she touches his face, and she says in an awestruck whisper, “You’re real!”

In Abigail Harm, it happens again. An unlikely stranger walks into the life of a painfully lonely woman, and the possibility of love blooms. Wavering between disbelief and ecstasy, she touches his face and whispers, “You’re real.”

But this is a very, very different film than The Fisher King.

And Abigail is older, more mercurial, and more deeply troubled than Lydia. Having grown up in the shadow of a charismatic and eloquent father, she has developed a deep sense of invisibility. Nobody sees her, and so she had withdrawn from the world into a corrosive isolation, working as a reader to the blind who literally cannot see her.

So how does she end up whispering intimately to a stranger? It all happens so fast. Having offered help to a mysterious stranger (played Will Patton) who shows up in her home, Abigail finds her kindness returned with an offer she can’t refuse. This half-mad transient from somewhere “up there” tells her about the strange things he has experienced in his fleeting experience as a human being — love being the greatest of them all. “Have you ever been in love?” he asks her. “I can arrange it for you.” And then he gives her instructions for what to do when she finds this man: steal and hide his cloak. If she does, he is bound to her forever.

Okay, what is this?

It is, in fact, a Korean folk tale called “The Woodcutter and the Nymph” served up in a contemporary context.

And it gets weirder. For a while, as Abigail’s father is dying in isolation, we watch Abigail dash around a beautifully dilapidated structure (one that reminds me of that gorgeously decaying cathedral in Andrei Rublev), searching for her promised companion. She’s giddy — giddy in the tension of doubt and hope. Doubt, hope… and denial.

Amanda Plummer is again playing a woman who dreams of love but is almost too scared to risk it.

And then, boom! A man — we might suspect him, played by Tetsuo Kuramochi, to be a Korean immigrant if the situation weren’t so mystical — appears naked in a tub. Abigail snatches his cloak and… the game is afoot.


What unfolds is a strangely unnerving love affair, as Abigail lures the stranger to her home, slowly teases him into a lovesick delirium, and serves as his tour guide through a magical re-imagining of New York that she describes as “harsh” and evil.

But it’s not the world outside that seems threatening. It’s the nature of the relationship. The affecting, enchanting score by Bryan Senti veers between dreamy bliss, as if this were a melancholy teen romance, and a slight dissonance that never lets us get too comfortable.

What would you do if you were offered love for the simple price of stealing someone’s cloak?

It’s a rare thing to see an actress in her 50s given a chance to play in a passionate love story. And Plummer commits fully to this enigmatic character in long-take close-ups that track her through jagged labyrinths of raw emotions.

And speaking of labyrinths, the “faun” from the folk tale — or “The Companion” as he’s credited here — is as emotionally unreadable as Abigail is expressive. He might become a charismatic prospect for her if he didn’t seem so bewildered in this world and so uncertain about the woman wooing him. He’s like the opposite of the angel who becomes human in Wings of Desire — he isn’t sure he’s down with love, or even down with having a roommate. So, their kisses, when they finally come, are awkward and unconvincing. And their indoor intimacy is more tragic than inspiring in how it exposes the fathomless depths of Abigail’s longing and loneliness.

Abigail Harm director Lee Isaac Chung worked from a script he co-wrote with Samuel Gray Anderson based on a Korean folktale.

There’s a strange “conversation” in which Abigail reveals the burden that her father has been in her life. In his popularity and confidence, he became someone she sought to distinguish and distance herself from. It’s a strange monologue, and here in the days immediately following news of Christopher Plummer’s passing, I couldn’t help but wonder if this scene, filmed ten years ago, might not have tapped into something deep and true in this particular actress.

But that’s a tangent. I’m in danger of spoiling where this film is going. Suffice it to say that Abigail Harm does not lead us where we might have guessed. It has zero interest in crowd-pleasing, and It’s committed to a strangeness I feel when reading foreign folktales — it’s more a cautionary tale than an inspirational story of what happens when we wish upon a star.

This is the only Lee Isaac Chung film I’ve found difficult to watch. Its abstractions, its abrasive protagonist, its long and demanding silences — all of these make me altogether uncertain of how to interpret what I’m seeing, and the strangeness of Plummer’s performance keeps me guessing as to what I’m supposed to think of her. But this is more about my discomfort with the unfamiliar than it is about any skill or artistry on the filmmakers’ part.  I find myself admiring the courage of these storytellers — Chung co-wrote this with his longtime creative partner Samuel Gray Anderson, and I hope they work together again.

The conclusion of this film confronts the audience with a challenge to their understanding of love. “What,” it seems to ask, “did you think was going to happen here? What did you think the lesson of Abigail’s life might be?” Maybe we should have taken her name seriously from the start, as obvious as that may seem.