Korea has produced many romance films over the years and if you’ve seen even a few of them you may have noticed that things don’t always end well for the lovers. Be it a spacio-temporal gap, a terminal disease or a handicap, there almost always seems to be something that separates them. By force of seeing so many of these films I began to wonder if there might have been something behind this. The most convincing reason I could come up with was that these separations may have been an allegory for a larger theme of separation that looms over Korea, namely the division of the peninsula.
While by no means a catchall theory, it think it stands up pretty well if you examine a number of the genre’s most famous offerings such as Lee Hyeon-seung's Il Mare (2000) and John H. Lee’s A Moment to Remember (2004). However as the years wore on and my knowledge of Korean cinema increased, this has become a less satisfactory explanation. It is quite simplistic and vague and though it can easily be applied to a film it can just as quickly be discredited. I still think there’s something to it but now I can see that it is just one facet of a broader set of priorities for Korean filmmakers.
Song Il-gon, though not as well known as filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk or Lee Myung-se overseas, is nevertheless one of Korea’s most impressive cineastes. In a very short time he made Spider Forest (2004), Feather in the Wind (2004) and Magicians (2005), all critically-acclaimed films. Spider Forest in particular was I film I was very impressed with which straddled a fine line between commerce and art and in the briefest possible terms I would describe it as what a Korean David Lynch film might look like.
Given his prior output, his latest seems like a bit of a departure. A romance film with a big hallyu star, Always was the opening film of last year’s Busan International Film Festival. If you didn’t know who was behind it, the film seemed just like any other Korean romance film and sure enough this is the kind of reception it received after it premiered. Because of its mediocre reviews and its disappointing box office returns I was ready to write the film off but out of respect for Song I decided I’d give it a chance. I must say I’m very glad that I did, while it did not scale the heights of some of his previous films, it turned out to be a rewarding experience that had more to offer than its generic trappings might imply.
Cheol-min (So Ji-sun) is a former boxer which a shady past who now solemnly works odd jobs to make a living. Jeong-hwa (Han Jye-hyo) is a telemarketer who lost her sight in a accident and mistakes Cheol-min for someone one day while he’s manning the booth at a parking complex. Sensing something sweet and sincere in him she frequently visits him, sharing his booth as they watch K-dramas. Both have suffered trauma and this is alluded to early on. Their pain and consequent vulnerability makes them sensitive and very well suited to one another. There is something dark lurking within in Cheol-min which he hasn’t fully been able to hide away while Jeong-hwa has her own complex (typical of handicapped characters in cinema) whereby she is unable to accept help from others.
So far so plain, nothing here really hints at anything more than typical romantic fare. So the question is: Is Always Song Il-gon’s attempt to make a commercially viable film? Given the demographic friendly plot, the presence of major Korean heartthrob So Ji-sub and the film’s big marketing push, the answer would appear to be yes. But this doesn’t mean the film is devoid of substance. First of all, the film looks great. The luminous cinematography is hazy and frequently sun-drenched, which gives off a potent air of nostalgia not to mention romance. Generally speaking the film is well-made, it is evident that the film is a result of a strong directorial hand.
As far as the leads go I would say that the casting of So Ji-sub works in its favor. Primarily a K-drama actor, So has also impressed in a few feature roles, namely as the stoic gangster in Jang Hoon-s exceptional Rough Cut (2008). The strong silent type, a staple character of the romance genre, suits him very well. He succeeds in bringing both the physicality and vulnerability out of his character. Han Jye-hyo on the other hand is less impressive. Early on she is very endearing and gels quite well with So but soon she falls prey to excess as she shrieks her way through the film’s more dramatic moments.
At one point in the film, Cheol-min is engaged in a vicious cage fight. He is presented as the opponent who faces a superior and notoriously dirty fighter. What struck me about this scene was its ambivalence: while outmatched, his opponent doesn’t resort to dirty tricks while he does, and this wins him the fight. The film cleverly brings the concept of audience alignment into question. We root for him because he is the protagonist and also because the film shows us, through codes and pieces of information, that he is the good guy while the other fighter is the villain, though we have never seen him before this point. We take these clues at face value but as Cheol-min begins to brutalize his opponent it becomes clear that our moral compass can be easily duped by emotional manipulation.
The film is not without its faults, which include a very poorly defined antagonist and some clunky Deus Ex Machinas but by and large this is a successful outing for Song who has once again stretched out into new territory. Always proves to be a fresh bent on an old theme and will likely reward discerning viewers who give the film a chance. I hope a few more people see it as it would be a shame for it drift away into anonymity.
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