Kang Woo-suk is a big name in Korean cinema. He is the director behind the Two Cops (1993-98) and Public Enemy (2002-08) trilogies and helmed the blockbusters Silmido (2003) and Hanbando (2005), as well last year’s big mystery film Moss. He’s been around for a long time and has had a big hand in shaping the industry as it stands today. In the 1990s he formed Cinema Service, which is now one of the country’s top film producers. Like a more prolific Kang Je-gyu, Kang specializes in blockbusters and doesn’t seem to know how not to make an event picture. Earlier this year however, his new film GLove was released. A baseball pic with a big star (Jeong Jae-yeong) and a rather modest concept by Kang’s standards.
GLove does feature a number of typical Kang features: a male-centric narrative populated by his regulars, such as Jeong and Kang Shin-il; an ambiguous protagonist who has fallen from grace; a lack of subtlety; and a very long running time (144 minutes). If it sounds like I’m criticizing him I will admit that I find Kang to be a very limited director though what he does, with his big, bombastic style, he does quite well and Public Enemy (one of the first Korean films I ever saw) still stands as one of my favorites. That said, in this new territory, Kang seems a little out of his depth. He recognizes the codes of the sports film and uses them to his advantage, the mise-en-scene is typically strong though not par with his other films, especially the sumptuously filmed Moss (2010). What Kang does struggle with is the saccharine melodrama, he doesn’t do a bad job but he is not subtle in his approach, not that many Korean filmmakers are, but it’s clear that it’s not his area of expertise.
|The star and his agent: Sang-nam (Jeong Jae-yeong) and Charles (Jo Jin-woong)|
To begin with the concept is terribly cloying. Baseball superstar Kim Sang-nam (Jeong Jae-yeong) falls from grace and is suspended, in order to rebuild his image his agent Charles (Jo Jin-woong) suggests that he start teaching baseball at a school for the hearing-impaired. Stubborn, moody, and resistant at first he soon starts to take a shine to the kids and begins to shapes these diamonds in the rough with the help of teachers Gyo-gam (Kang Shin-il) and Joo-won (Yoo Seon).
From the outset there is little doubt as to what you will be subjected to: the bullying of deaf children; group crying; the melting of cold hearts; redemption; etc. On these counts the film does not disappoint. Korean cinema is rife with mute or deaf characters harboring or enduring traumas without the ability to express them. I briefly wrote about these protagonists in my review for last year’s Poongsan and it occurs to me now that they are also an ideal cinematic representations of ‘han’, which I discussed vis-à-vis mothers in my piece on Mama (2011) earlier this week. Of course normally we only have to deal with one of these characters in Korean films but with GLove we get a whole school of them, which of course comes with a whole lot of baggage. It’s nearly as though the depiction of the hearing-impaired built to a crescendo in 2011, ending of course with the worldwide media frenzy surrounding Silenced, which resulted in new laws being passed in Korea.
|The teachers: Gyo-gam (Kang Shin-il) and Joo-won (Yoo Seon)|
Sadly GLove is not as interesting as it could be, which is no surprise. It’s most like A Barefoot Dream, Korea’s 2010 selection for the Oscars, which was a strong feature but also bogged down by saccharine melodrama. The strongest aspect of the film is Jeong Jae-yeong’s performance whom I think is one of the best actors in Korea. Primarily identified as a bad guy or a comedian, Jeong has shown great range in the last few years and turned in some of the best performances in Korean cinema. His deadpan comedy was the anchor of Someone Special (2004) and Going By the Book (2007), while his vulnerability was aching in Castaway on the Moon (2009), and he rightly won a Grand Bell award for his menacing performance in last year’s Moss. His turn in GLove is not on the level of the previous films but he plays the arrogant, stubborn, and stoic baseball star to a tee and as always he’s very funny. Special mention should go to Jo Jin-woon who plays his hard-working agent. Jo, who has been in Gangster High (2006), A Frozen Flower (2008), and The Front Line (2011), had never impressed me before but now I can see why he appears in so many films. He balances the good-natured and frustrated elements of the character very well, and his chemistry with Jeong is excellent.
Besides a few strong performances, GLove was a disappointment but it was a strong, confident production. It’s just too long, not particularly engaging, and very predictable. I like to see directors trying something new but maybe Kang should stick to what he’s good at, I’m not sure how versatile he is. I do enjoy baseball films though and still have two Korean ones to watch from 2011, FightingSpirit and Perfect Game, I hope at least one can bring it home.
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