Thursday, 25 January 2007

Once in a Summer 그해 여름 (2006)

Those who forget history are doomed to make period tearjerkers!

There’s something strange about asking a 36 year-old man to play a high school student. Yet for his first tearjerker romance, this is precisely what romantic comedy director Jo Geun-sik resorts to. Lee Byeong-heon – whose claim to fame rests on the Joint Security Area movie – is an aging professor (who looks like a 36-year-old with a grey wig and stage latex around his eyes, but none on his wrinkle-free hands) who disappeared completely from public view after a sudden resignation, and one of his former students tracks him down in order to do a television programme, which you never get to see or even figure out what it’ll be about, because it’s a plot device to get the prof to launch the movie into a huge flashback to 1969, which forms the meat of this tearjerker romance. As our young intrepid reporter leans forward in earnest attention, the old prof begins to tell of his first romance as a young college student.

Summer 1969. Retired general Park Chung Hee forces a charter change to allow himself to serve for an otherwise unconstitutional third term as president. The actions of the general (who promised not to run for presidential elections in 1963!) is deeply resented, causing widespread student unrest. Our future prof joins his classmates, who either defy the street curfews or escape them by roughing it out with farmers at a remote village. Perhaps this movie will be something like "Love During South Korea’s Great Leap Forward". Since this is a tearjerker, give yourself 1 point if you guessed that the prof’s going to fall so deeply in love with a villager, yet have the romance turn out so badly or tragically that he never remarried, and this romance is somehow linked to his eventual voluntary seclusion from society.

But then as you watch the movie, it becomes apparent that Jo Geun-sik really wants to do is tell a straightforward love story set in a rustic place, and that the political background and implications are pretty much tossed out of the window once boy meets girl. In time-honoured romantic comedy fashion, boy takes a dislike to girl due to a poor first meeting, but both gradually fall in love with each other as they tease each other while working together at the village. All this is scripted very competently, even though it seems that not enough was made out of the apathetic boy and the girl whose parents actually defected to North Korea. But then, given that not enough was made out of the political background of the story, or from the modern-day introduction and bookending of the story (why did the boy not search for the girl? Why is the television station interested in him, given that it knows nothing about his story? What did he do for the 50 years after the end of the romance? And why?), one can’t really expect much beyond an average romance.

Even then, you can’t expect much of this average romance when the political reality of 1969 catches up with the lovers. I’m depressed enough to report that during the most preposterous interrogation scene in a Korean movie starring Lee Byeong-jeon, which involves him and Su-ae weeping as they communicate their loves through their eyes while managing to fool their secret service interrogators that they don’t know each other, I was hoping that the director had stuck to a straightforward, apolitical, ahistorical romance instead.

Who is to blame for all this? I can’t tell since there are 8 (EIGHT!) credited writers for this film, which probably explains its multiple deficiencies. This movie does start out well with an interesting premise, an uncommon setup , and a promise of mixing politics in a tearjerker, but develops none of the premises, and fulfils none of its promises. Taken by itself, Once in a Summer is a decent romance, but falls behind the well-established Taiwanese and Chinese political weepies genre. One hopes Lee Byeong-heon lands better projects than this in the future!

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

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