Saturday, 3 June 2006

Almost Love (청춘만화) (2006)

Almost romantic, almost comic, almost melodramatic. Almost watchable.

Once upon a time in 2003. Kwon Sang-wu and Kim Ha-neul starred in My Tutor Friend, which remains in the top 20 all-time bestselling Korean films. Kwon’s new acting career was given a huge boost due to the popular reception to the movie and the inevitable Korean acting awards. Since then, Kwon has become an A-list actor, gracing cinemas at least with at least one romantic comedy a year and collecting his annual booty of Most Popular Actor awards. There’s no secret to Kwon’s appeal: with his pretty-boy modelling looks and toned physique, every commercially successful Korean romance has him baring his torso (or much more) for his fans.

It’s a pity that his one serious attempt to break out of typecasting in last year’s Running Wild was met with poor reception from Korean filmgoers. Yearning to regain box office respectability, Kwon reunites with Kim Ha-neul in Almost Love, which seeks to duplicate the romantic comedy formula that propelled Kwon to stardom.

This time round, Kwon and Kim are neighbours as well as very close childhood friends now studying in college. Ji-hwan (Kwon) is in the karate team, but his life-long ambition is to be an action hero like his idol, Jackie Chan. That explains his moonlighting as a stuntman on a film set, but his awful bowl cut and pallid skin tone makes him look like a clone of Ricky Hui. Since the in-thing in Korean comedies now seems to be the alternately oddball goofy and charming male protagonist, Kwon’s resemblance to Ricky Hui seems frighteningly accurate, although unintended. Providing the other half in the freakish-yet-charming-couple formula is Dal-rae (Kim), an aspiring television actress who fumbles all her drama club readings and film auditions with her incessant trembling and nervous tics. The two pals bicker and cheer each other up. When they begin serious dating with other people, their friendship becomes strained. What will it take for both of them to realise their love for each other?

It’s not an entirely new premise, and in the hands of a good writer and director, would be watchable at worse or a middling success at best. In the clumsy hands of Lee Han, who gave us the complete mess that was Garden of Love and the ultra-trite Lover’s Concerto, the film never gets off at all. Yes, we all know that Kwon Sang-woo and Kim Ha-neul are great looking stars, that they ooze sex appeal with their looks, that they had great screen chemistry in their previous collaboration, My Tutor Friend (directed by the subversively funny Kim Gyeong Hyeong). Lee Han knows that too, and then assumes that’s enough to see Almost Love through.

It’s as though Lee Han is pulling the Jedi mind trick from Star Wars: expectations of what the movie is, what its main characters are like, how these two childhood friends possess a deep and unspoken love for each other, and how great they look, will distract or blind the audience from the lack of character development, the weak characterisation (till now, I still can’t get a finger on what kind of girl Dal-rae is or what draws Ji-hwan to her), and the lazy scriptwriting and plot holes this movie suffers from. Or maybe with those expectations in mind, the audience would mentally fill in the gaps and end up watching a vastly different and more superior movie from the one that is on the screen – the one that I, without an extensive fan-worship of the stars, the genre, and the Korean wave, ended up watching.

If there was sizzling chemistry between the two stars, I didn’t notice it. Perhaps the script had Hi-hwan and Dal-rae as really good friends, both in their adult and kiddie incarnations – and that’s all they are. Goofily horsing around with one another, childishly pouting at each other for neglecting their friendship, any romantic undertones between them is purely a product of audience expectations, because the script – as far as I know – didn’t develop it at all. Emotionally, the stars had much more chemistry with their on-screen dads: Kwon bonds well with Jeong Gyoo-soo as a bohemian hippy father, and Kim delivers the most tearjerking scene in the movie with Choi Jong-ryol as a father paralysed by stroke.

So underdeveloped and flimsy is the relationship between the two protagonists that a severe jolt is delivered at the end of the second act, turning the film into a melodrama. It’s the in-thing for Korean films to feature a sudden and violent twist, accompanied by a switch in genre, and it sometimes works well. In the hands of Lee Han, the twist is achieved by an unnecessary and meaningless plot device, comes out of nowhere and has never been properly foreshadowed in the earlier acts, and is succeeded by a melodramatic third act that feels overlong and saggy. And again, the emotionally intense scenes come from Kwon and Kim’s solo scenes, and not from their reunion finale. Their reunion, of course, is achieved by another flimsy plot device that makes me wonder if an aeroplane could manoeuvre through the holes in Lee Han’s script.

There’s a scene in the movie where Ji-hwon hands a screenplay to a movie director (don’t ask me how it comes to this, and don’t try to think too hard in the cinema why it would ever come to this), and the director tells him the script has some good ideas, but some scenes are irrelevant, the plot goes nowhere, and the dialogue is bad. I wish someone could’ve told Lee Han that. Fans of Kwon Sang-woo and Kim Ha-neul shouldn’t expect a remake of My Tutor Friend. They had best arm themselves with a strong imagination in the cinema, or rent the My Tutor Friend DVD to avoid disappointment.

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

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