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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shotgun Love (Sa-rang-i Moo-seo-weo) 2011

Fake Family

Im Chang-jeong is one of those curious Korean stars who has been around forever, is bankable, but is not graced with movie star looks.   The most famous of these is Song Kang-ho. who has made a career out of playing oddballs and losers (for the most part) and has become the biggest Korean film star.  Im may not be as well known to foreign audiences but he is also a big name.  He has been around since the 1990s, one of his notable early roles was as Jung Sung-woo’s friend in Beat (1997) but it was his pairings with the beautiful Ha Ji-won that may have made him a star.  Sex Is Zero was the Korean answer to American Pie (1999) when it came out in 2002.  It landed at no. 3 for the year after selling over four million tickets.  In 2007, Miracle on 1st Street reunited the stars and they wound up at no. 5 for the year.  Sex Is Zero 2 came out that same year and snuck in it no. 10 but Ha only featured in a cameo.

Pairing average looking actors with gorgeous actresses is not a new phenomenon in cinema, indeed it has been evident since its early days.  You don't have to think too hard to realize why this was is case:  in a patriarchal society which often values appearance over substance, it is acceptable for men with power to possess beautiful woman like commodities regardless of their own looks.  Many things have changed in the interceding years and gender equality is gently coming into existence but this sort of representation in cinema is doggedly persistent.  The ugly powerful man and beautiful woman combo is still evident but much less than it was, the more popular pairing for a long time has been the average joe with the gorgeous, often vulnerable, woman.  It works well because it is male wish fulfillment:  men like to visit a world where they can believe that they could have any woman they want.

Real family, but not really

As much as I love the comedies of Judd Apatow of recent years, they are very guilty of this.  Knocked Up (2007) is a great film but it’s a stretch to imagine that a pot-smoking, unemployed, potty-mouthed aspiring erotica website entrepreneur in the shape of Seth Rogen would wind up with a successful, careerist TV anchor looking like Katherine Heigl.  Of course this is the secret to its success:  it’s a romcom, so it appeals to women; and it is wish fulfillment fantasy for men.  Im Chang-ho’s latest star vehicle, Shotgun Love, fits this same mold by pairing him with Kim Gyoo-ri, a pretty but cold actress who has had a lengthy career but I’ve only begun to notice her this year after seeing her in Juhn Jai-hong’s Kim Ki-duk-scripted Poongsan.  So far my impression of her may be tainted, in both her 2011 roles she has played off-putting, unlikeable characters, what’s more the gender representations that they entailed have not been flattering, but I don’t think I can blame her for that.

Im plays Sang-yeol, who is an actor of sorts, playing a husband on a shopping channel cooking show, he and his co-workers pretend to be a happy family and serves as little more than set dressing.  So-yeon (Kim Gyoo-ri) is his wife at work and he has fallen in love with her but he doesn’t know that she is having an affair with the self-centered Director Park (Kim Tae-hoon).  Around the same time that Sang-yeol starts to make clumsy advances on So-yeon, she falls pregnant and stops seeing Park after deciding to keep the baby.  It wouldn’t be proper, her friend says, to become an unmarried, single mother, as opposed to divorced or widowed.  Sang-yeol gets very drunk with her one night and wakes up in a hotel.  He assumes that he has slept with her and this gives So-yeon the opportunity to pretend that they did and make Sang-yeol believe he is her child’s father.  Shortly thereafter,  they marry.

The cold So-yeon (Kim Gyoo-ri)

It’s an effective conceit for a romantic comedy and perfectly fits the average joe/gorgeous woman formula.  It’s also very manipulative, shallow, and dare I say veering towards misogyny.  On top of that, it can feel a little confusing at times, the narrative may be straightforward, but the motivations raise an eyebrow or two.  One can see why Sang-yeol falls for So-yeon, since he’s wrapped up in a fake ideal of a perfect family, which he relives everyday.  The fact that she is very pretty doesn’t hurt either.  What’s more difficult to understand is why he still loves her at the end after she’s been outed as a manipulator and a liar.  She doesn’t love him and initially just uses him but after living together for a while, he treats her so kindly and thoughtfully that she falls for him.  However, she doesn’t reciprocate, for the most part she treats him badly.  Following the inevitable conclusion, it nearly feels like the message is:  look, Mr. Average Joe scored a really hot girl, and that’s all that matters, high five!

Perhaps I’m being a little cynical and a little harsh, that’s probably true since most romantic comedies are in some way guilty of cheap moralization and turning a blind eye to questionable actions but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t single out Shotgun Love for criticism.  It’s not a bad film, in fact a lot of if works, even if it tends to be by the numbers and ultimately a little overwrought, but this is the playing field and the cast and crew tread it well, like they’ve all played the game before.  There are some very clever and interesting spins on the fine line between acting and the truth: the fake family of the infomercial vs. the half-lie of the real marriage, not to mention the strangers that pose of Sang-yeol's family in the wedding picture.  Just don't get me started on gay representation, that was a real problem in this film. My criticisms mostly stem from the slight moral outrage it awoke in me, late during a Tuesday night and which subsequently vanished until I put pen to paper (rather finger to keyboard but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it) for this review.  There are a few incongruous gross-out moments and a bit of repetition though on the whole, this is a solid romcom, though not on the same plateau as Korea’s best (My Sassy Girl, 2001; My Little Bride, 2004; and many, many more) but, in this reviewer’s opinion, it is a little sexist.  

Victory for Sang-yeol (Im Chan-jeong), except it isn't


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