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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Love and the War (Jeokkwaui Dongchim) 2011

The villagers look on as North Korea invades

Since Korean cinema reemerged at the end of the 1990s one of the most popular topics it has mined has been the division of the peninsula.  Many credit Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri (1999) as the blockbuster that brought about a renaissance in Korean film.  Personally I believe that the industry was already reviving before this but Shiri certainly was the perfect storm that toppled box office records and made the world stand up and take notice.  As well as being the highest-budgeted Korean film up until that point ($8.5 million), Shiri was also a technical spectacle modeled on Hollywood action films which incorporated melodrama, perhaps more importantly, it was focused on North Korea.  A year later, Joint Security Area (2000), Park Chan-wook’s debut and an even more complex view on the relationship between North and South Korea, once again set the box office alight, beating Shiri’s record for Seoul admissions but falling just short on the national level.  The gangster film Friend reached new heights in 2001 and the next two films to break the record came in quick succession in late 2003/early 2004.  The first of these was Kang Woo-suk’s Silmido, telling the story of a group of South Korean convicts being trained to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in the late 1960s.  It was the first film to cross the 10 million admissions mark but was overtaken in a matter of weeks by Kang Je-gyu’s follow-up to Shiri, the enormous Korean war blockbuster Taegukgi.  Kang’s film followed brothers of the South Korean army who are eventually separated as one joins the North.

There is no question that the representations of North Korea often translate into box office success but these have changed over time.  2011 has given us a lot of films dealing with the North, more so than usual.  While some have been typical large-scale productions like Jang Hoon's The Front Line there have also been a number of smaller scale films tackling representations of the North from new angles, including Juhn Jai-hong's Poongsan and Park Jung-bum’s independent hit The Journals of Musan.  One film that falls between these two ends of the spectrum is In Love and the War (aka Sleeping With the Enemy), a melodramatic war comedy in the vein of Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), another enormously successful North Korea-themed blockbuster.

Kim Jung-woong's platoon marches in

A quaint village in the southern part of the Korean peninsula goes about its business during the Korean war.  The locals are preparing for Sul-hee’s (Jung Ryeo-won) wedding when a North Korean military platoon, led by Kim Jung-woong (Kim Ju-hyeok), invades.  Sul-hee’s suitor, a member of the anti-communist youth league, flees with his family during the night.  Jung-woong sees himself as a liberator and the villagers, in order to ensure their safety, kowtow to their oppressors.  Sul-hee is strong-willed and is less gracious in her welcome.

You can guess how the rest of the film plays out which makes the 135 minute running time daunting but normally this kind of narrative succeeds on the basis of its details and characters rather than much originality from the direction that the story and intended moral focus will take.  Welcome to Dongmakgol was very successful with this tactic:  it began with an original and improbable conceit and after having introduced its great characters, it relied on them, good set pieces, and witty humor rather than the story which can only play out in one way.  Sadly, In Love and the War does not feature the same caliber of protagonists and suffers greatly because of its uneven tone.  It’s a war film, a drama, a comedy, and also a romance but rather than blend these elements throughout the narrative, separate scenes distinctly occupy one territory and clash with each other.

Jung Ryeo-won as Sul-hee

Much of the fault lies with the script, from Bae Se-young (Bronze Medalist, 2009; The Recipe, 2010), which, in its attempt to portray conflicting ideologies in a novel way, ends up humanizing, in cloying melodramatic fashion, everyone staying in the village during the occupation, while demonizing all that stand outside its borders.  I understand the need for us to empathize with the principal characters by streamlining the motivations of the antagonizing agents of action but here the paradox of the mutable ideologies of these protagonists versus the draconian dogmas of the outsiders strains credulity to breaking point.  Granted Welcome to Dongmakgol is guilty of this as well but it is less transparent and benefits from much better character progressions as a result of Jang Jin’s fine writing.

Also to blame is Park Keon-hong’s heavy-handed direction.  In his film, Park does not demonstrate a strong knowledge or understanding of film style, the mise-en-scene is only fleshed-out for the overwrought melodramatic peaks of the narrative and this, if anything, serves to undermine them as they seem to belong to a different film.  One of the reasons that Korea has been so successful in blending genres is its frequent ability to forge an exemplary and unified style and atmosphere through film production techniques, that way the oscillating themes, tones, and emotions can exist within the same framework.  Good examples of this include Jang Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet (2003) and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006).  This is a trait that In Love and the War is sorely lacking.

Yu Hae-jin, Byun Hee-bong, and Shin Jeong-keun

The strongest point of the film has to be its ensemble cast, filled with veteran bit players and emerging stars.  Kim Ju-hyeok (The Servant, 2010) does well in his role even if he is a little dry but Jung Ryeo-won (Castaway on the Moon, 2009) is excellent as usual, she has gone from strength to strength in her career and I look forward to her being offered meatier parts.  The supporting cast, comprising of Yu Hae-jin (The Unjust; Moss, both 2010), Kim Sang-ho (Moby Dick, 2011), Byun Hee-bong (Memories of Murder, 2003; The Host), and Shin Jeong-keun (Running Turtle, 2009; Blades of Blood, 2010), are all wonderful, even if the script calls on them to overact from time to time.  I only wish this great cast had been given more defined characters and stronger dialogue.

Perhaps In Love and the War is a worthy experiment but as a narrative feature it ultimately fails due in part to its disparate ideas but mainly because it lacks restraint and balance.  However I will say that I was enjoying the film until the third act but at that point the film completely floundered, the climax is beyond absurd and frankly a bit of an embarrassment.  Given the film's anemic performance at the Korean box office, I imagine others felt the same way.



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1 comment:

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