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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Children ... (A-i-deul...) 2011

Children… opens with a young boy running in slow motion in a red cape in rural Korea in the early 1990s, accompanied by stirring music, a Korean Mendelssohn-esque string symphony. Right from the bat this is an emotional affair, the kind of scene that Korean filmmakers are so adept at. They can wring out feelings from their spectators without even presenting a story or real characters. All they need are a few symbolic images and some top-flight mise-en-scene and we are powerless to resist. The next few minutes quickly set the scene for something ominous to happen, once again without giving us any real information. The cinematography and exceptional score do all the work and give us everything we need to know.

Opening shot
I went into this film not knowing a thing about it but it was easy to tell where it was going from those opening moments before the title shot. I was reminded of Friend (2001) and Memories of Murder (2003) in equal measure. Naturally I grew very excited and eagerly followed the plot as a group of children go missing and are not found. A few years later a shamed TV producer (Park Yong-woo) comes to the town and starts his own investigation in order to rebuild his reputation. He enlists the help a professor (Ryoo Seung-yong) with a few crazy ideas but encounters the resistance of the local law enforcement. The narrative doesn’t quite follow where you think it will after that but I will let you discover that for yourself.

The music in this film was truly extraordinary, not just in its quality but also in its power when combined with the visual medium. This brings me to an interesting question: how is it that from time to time we can experience a potent degree of catharsis without having followed a narrative or any character’s trajectory? Children… successfully raised a lump in my throat and made me feel something before I even knew any of the character’s names. Sadly the film did not ultimately follow through on this as I felt it was rife with problems, and yet at numerous points during the film I found myself affected by the evocative music and impressive technical skill on display.

Park Yong-woo as the TV producer
Music is used in cinema (and television) to heighten the emotions of a certain scene. The best examples of this are the short staccato and loud spikes in horror, the sweeping strings in melodrama, and the bombastic orchestral pieces used in epics, war, and action films. There are numerous other examples but those three display their effectiveness and their potential. Music can lift a dull scene, get the heart racing, or unscrew the valve to your tear ducts, but it isn’t often that it will completely hijack your state of mind irrespective of what is on screen. It does happen of course, there are certain pieces of music that are so well-known and beautiful that they will always prompt a strong reaction. Good examples are the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony and Debussy’s Claire de lune, both overused at this point but it’s easy to see why. On a purely subjective level each and every one of us may react differently to individual pieces, it’s extraordinary how one piece of music may change your perception of a film.

Ryoo Seung-yong as the professor
Korean films often have excellent scores, I’m sure that there are a handful of composers that are at the heart of this but I couldn’t tell you who they are. Children… started to lose me, especially in the second half but every times they broke out the strings I was helpless, captivated, but by what and why? Let’s go back to the opening scene and examine it, music, slow-mo, boy running in red cape, 20 years ago. The little information at hand is actually crucial and as much as this scene may elicit an emotional response from a foreign viewer, I imagine it must be even more so for a Korean. The red cape brings to mind the bloody Gwangju massacre of 1980, in which thousands of students dressed in red were slaughtered by the military government for protesting. The dinky village roads and muted colors (save for the red) evoke the still recent past of a country which has suffered an enormous amount of trauma. What’s impressive is that I think the scene is still powerful even if you are not privy to that information.

As for the rest of the film, there are a number of interesting themes that are presented. There is the process of grief in Korea, which is shown in a manipulative and rather ham-fisted way and includes themes of the role of the parent and sacrifice. Then there is a veiled commentary on the passage of time in modern Korean society as the disappearance of the youths is all but forgotten as the nation moves on. Not all move on though and it is not only the parents who refuse to let go but the professor as well. He reminds me of the intellectuals in the Korean New Wave films of the 1980s and early 1990s. It seems like a criticism of the systematic glossing over of a national history that has become too difficult to bear, it is easier to forget.

Emotional but somewhat manipulative
That last point seems very familiar, indeed I’ve already mentioned it, but I think that Children… takes more than a few pointers from Memories of Murder and as it warrants the comparison it must be said that it pales significantly in its wake. Other than that the film suffers from an odd structure, an excessive running time, somewhat undeveloped characters, and too much reliance on forced melodrama. The parts that work, and I’ve described them at length, work wonderfully and are more-or-less worth giving the film a chance but they are not supported by a substantive narrative. Maybe I’m getting a little tired of kids going missing films, the last 12 months alone have given us Children…, Man of Vendetta (2010), and No Doubt (2010), all of which fell short in some regard.


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1 comment:

  1. I have a strange feeling that you really liked the score..

    ReplyDelete