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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I Am a Dad (Na-neun Abba-da) 2011

Different films come with different expectations. Depending on the pedigree attached, the budget afforded, or the genre/subjects mined, our preconceptions vary accordingly. B-movies have been popular since the early days of cinema, they have entertained us with their cheap thrills and delighted us with their far-fetched plots. Due to the nature of the production of these films, low budgets and short shoot times are a necessity, and consequently nuance and high production values are ill-afforded extravagances. Things tend to be exaggerated and excessively stylized, since when the actions on screen deliberately eschew realism, it is much easier to get away with things. Hence our expectations are very different for a glossy film with a high-budget, which we tend scrutizine, and a dime-a-dozen B-movie, which we are more likely to accept for what it is, cheap and simple entertainment.

Gritty B-movie
B-movies are mainly considered an American form of filmmaking but in other countries the rules of engagement are necessarily different. In Korea there has been a small number of 'authentic' B-movies including this year's Invasion of Alien Bikini and The Neighbor Zombie (2010), both from the same group of filmmakers. There are, however, a great many low-budget, generic studio features churned out in Chungmuro every year. I Am a Dad is not quite a B-movie, but it comes close and for me, before watching it, I had similar preconceptions. That is to say it looked cheap, gritty, exaggerated, generic, and featured a second-tier Korean star.

The story is simple and deliberately channels popular Korean exports of the 'Asia Extreme' variety. It features a revenge plotline, a very violent and corrupt detective, and illegal organ donors. Kim Seung-woo plays Detective Han Jong-sik, the corrupt investigator who has framed people for crimes to further his own ends. One of these victims exacted his revenge by killing his wife and injuring his daughter (Kim Sae-ron), who is now in desperate need of a new heart. In order to pay for his daughter’s condition, he goes on the take for some gangsters. Meanwhile another innocent man, Na Sang-man (Son Byeong-ho), that he put away from murder, is released, but not before his daughter dies and his wife winds up in a coma. Just like this year’s Heartbeat, it turns out that Na’s wife, who is considered clinically dead, is the only heart transplant available that could save Han’s daughter.

Kim Sae-ron, in need of a heart
The concept isn’t bad, even if it is quite contrived, but it loses its impact as a result of its excessive foreshadowing. Detective Han and Sang-man are tied via their parrallel fates, or rather that of their wives and daughters. Indeed, most of the narrative is played off of repetition, which inevitably means that a lot of time is wasted over the development of story and characters that has already been presaged. Having the ability to see ahead of time how the broad strokes will play out takes away much of the fun and leaves little to the imagination.

Kim Seung-woo, who is known mostly for starring in lesser Korean films like Spring Breeze (2003) and The Unbearable Lightness of Dating (2006) and has recently taken co-starring roles in more significant works like the K-Drama Iris (2009) and John H. Lee’s war epic 71: Into the Fire (2010), works best in measured, stoic parts, playing military or law enforcement figures. In I Am a Dad, he hams it up as an investigator prone to excessive bouts of violence. Kim plays Detective Han with a straight face, his portrayal of Detective Han is humorless and unironic. Normally I would take issue with a performance such as this one but given my expectations, which I have already outlined, it fits quite well with the style of the film.

Son Byeong-ho as the innocent family man
Son Byeong-ho does his best in the role he inhabits, but his best scenes are early on as clown/family man. For the rest of the film he displays two emotions: rage; and uncertainty. Unfortunately, child star Kim Sae-ron isn’t given much to do but I find it extraordinary that, in what seems like a pernicious bit of typecasting, for the third time in a row, following A Brand New Life (2009) and The Man From Nowhere (2010), she plays a girl who has lost her mother.

Im Ha-ryong, as the over-the-hill Detective Kim, is the standout performance, an affable. He is a positive presence on screen, it is unfortunate that some of the lines he is fed do not do him justice. Im has toiled away in minor roles in major films for years, such as Arahan (2003), Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), Insadong Scandal (2009), and Good Morning President (2009) and is familiar to most who have an even limited exposure to Korean cinema.

Kim Seung-woo as Detective Han
The main indicators of the film’s lowly standing are its production values, sadly they are also one of its weakest assets. The camera is constantly shaking, the colours are washed out, the editing is fast-paced and slapdash, and even the sound tends to spike in the film’s loudest moments. There is no visual flair and the framing is all easy to set-up mid-shots. It seems to me that the haphazard manner of the production is a by-product of its meager finances and quick schedule.

The final sequences are a bit of a departure from what is an otherwise standard and unstylized narrative. I’m not quite sure they worked but I appreciated the effort nonetheless. The filmmakers took a little poetic license and were more florid in their mise-en-scene. Despite all its flaws I Am a Dad is never less than watchable and as long as you don’t expect much from it, it amounts to a pleasant enough way to distract oneself for 100 minutes.


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