A few days ago, I saw Lee Hyeon-seung’s new film Hindsight and as I’m sitting at my computer, trying to gather my thoughts on it, I’m beginning to realize just how conflicted I am about it. As a result I’m having a little trouble figuring out how to begin this review. I suppose I could start off by saying that it was an admirable effort. The film is a curious concoction of tropes and devices which are individually recognizable but combine into an unfamiliar whole. I love to cook and I am a keen admirer of beautiful cinematography so the film already ticks a few boxes for me. What’s more, it has some incredible moments and above all ambition.
Hindsight was mostly derided upon its release, in large part due to its poor returns, in spite of its major star (Song Kang-ho) and it being the long-awaited return of Lee Hyeon-seung (Il Mare, 2000) to the director’s chair. Critics were eager to point out its unfocussed narrative and facile portrayal of gangsters, and I can’t fault them for that. Hindsight becomes almost opaque in its relentless pursuit of aesthetic gratification and desire to be cool.
However, 2011 was a frustrating year to be a fan of Korean film. While a number of fantastic independent films and a few surprise hits saw the light of day, the majority of last year’s releases were mired in the trudge of routine and by-the-numbers filmmaking. At worst, a number of last year’s offerings were pedestrian and uninvolved. While Hindsight is not among the year’s best releases, it does stand out from most Korean films made in 2011. The reason for this is its ambition to be something different and the care and craft that goes into its making.
Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho) is a retired mob boss who has moved to Busan and enrolled in cooking classes with the aim of opening his own restaurant. His cooking class partner is the young and stoic Se-bin (Sin Se-kyeong) who little does he know is keeping tabs on him for a rival gang. She and her friend owe money to a local gang and perform odd jobs as a form of repayment. Doo-heon’s former gang undergoes a power struggle and the paranoia that ensues ends up on his front door. Se-bin is a former champion sharpshooter and before long she is ordered to take out Doo-heon despite having grown quite friendly with him.
The main focus of the film is the odd bond between Doo-heon and Se-bin and a lot of the machinations that serve to conflagrate their relationship stem from the overloaded but simplistic side plots involving gangsters and gun dealers. Doo-heon is not your typical gangster, which you would expect given that he’s played by Song Kang-ho, one of Korea’s great actors who came to prominence after embodying one of the most bizarre gangsters I can remember in No. 3 (1997). In many ways, his portrayal of Doo-heon reminds of his earlier role as In-goo in The Show Must Go On (2007). He seems awkwardly charming and harmless, yet he was chosen to be his gang’s next boss. Se-bin is similarly conflicted as she tails him, she knows who he is but is unable to reconcile his reputation with her image of him.
The mise-en-scene of the film is especially pronounced and sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill productions that were released around the same time. Lee employs a lot of blue in the art design which showcases the sterile modernity of the rapidly changing environment surrounding the characters. The Seoul sequences are shot with an eye towards formal compositions while the Busan segments are warmer and more organic in their staging. The cinematography, lighting, and art design are irreproachable and indeed were recognized at Korea’s industrial awards as Hindsight scored five nominations in technical categories at the 48th Daejong Film Awards.
To me it seemed like Lee was making a commentary on the shifting priorities of modern Koreans by employing the not-so-subtle metaphor of the corrupt, power-hungry Seoulite gangsters. Even Doo-heon is forced into an empty tower of solitude as he waits out the contract on his head. By contrast, the more colourful aspects of the film tend to be scenes featuring cooking. The broths and soups that are concocted are traditional and cobbled together with the ingredients immediately available to hand. One ramshackle shack in Busan even forces its patrons to make their own food with the fresh ingredients and old cookware made available to them. Doo-heon is learning to cook throughout the film and gradually, as he improves, you feel his attitude change. At one point in the film Doo-heon and Se-bin go and see Sunny (2011) in the theater, which renders the past very colourfully in comparison with the present.
Despite its visual splendour, Hindsight often peters out as it seesaws between its lumpy plot strands. It’s a shame really because one has the sense of a subcutaneous beauty that is only hinted at from our surface vantage point. There is much passion woven into the fabric of this film but it is haphazard and scattershot and fails to draw you in. I would say that Hindsight is worth a look, if only for its magnificent allure and the always welcome presence of Song Kang-ho but be prepared to be dissatisfied and left wanting by its end.
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