By Rex Baylon
What do you do when a filmmaker you respect and champion begins to make works that you dislike? Do you unabashedly support it and ignore the work’s inherent flaws? Do you ignore the work, pretend to suffer from cinephilic amnesia and hope that the offending film will fall through the cracks of time and be mercifully forgotten? Or do you finally sit down and deal with the fact that people, no less filmmakers, are imperfect artisans and that although our initial response to their work may have been unabashed excitement, it must be tempered and we must attempt to look at each new work free from the distractions of the past.
Having begun life as part of a three-part omnibus film entitled Chengdu, I Love You (2009) with contributions by Chinese filmmaker Cu Jian and Hong Kong auteur Fruit Chan. Hur Jin-ho’s A Good Rain Knows (2009) evolved out of that project and became its own feature. Being a Pan-Asian production Hur cast Korean superstar Jung Woo-sung, fresh off the production of Kim Jee-won’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), to play the poet-turned-businessman Park Dong-ha and Mainland Chinese actress Gao Yuanyuan, who worked on the controversial Lu Chuan picture City of Life and Death (2009) that same year, was cast as May, Dong-ha’s melancholic love interest.
As two people who were apparently very much in love with each other but for reasons outside of their control were never able to consummate their relationship, Dong-ha and May are typical characters, recognizable from the romance genre. Filled with angst over the past and with the question “What if…?” constantly looming in the back of their minds, when May and Dong-ha are reunited they are both emotionally guarded. Dong-ha constantly harks back to the past and May deflects his advances by forgetting or mis-remembering events. As a drama soaked in awkward pauses and bursts of emotion, this is nothing new in South Korean cinema nor for Hur Jin-ho.
Beautifully shot by Kim Byung-seo, who lensed the modern classic Castaway on the Moon (2009), the film captures the picturesque beauty of the Chengdu region, but suffers from a simplistic delivery of the material. Whereas Hur’s previous efforts employed a minimalist style which foregoes expository dialogue, concentrated on shots of banal everyday routines, returned to certain motifs and portraiture, such as in Christmas in August (1998) or focused on the background noise that surrounds us on a day-to-day basis, like in One Fine Spring Day (2001), by comparison, A Good Rain Knows offers nothing in the way of subtlety.
Foregoing Korean or the Sichuan dialect, Hur has his two leads speak primarily in English to one another and though Jung and Gao do a good job, their delivery rarely allows you to forget that we are listening to actors parroting lines from a page. Aside from that, the actors' monotone deliveries also don’t help to give the dialogue any subtext. Jung and Gao do a better job emoting and expressing through the use of their body and facial expressions, and one wishes that Hur had opted for far less dialogue.
Beside these issues A Good Rain Knows offers up a ham-fisted attempt at a commentary about South Korea’s new role as a global power. Sporadic mentions of the country’s efforts to help the Chengdu region recover from the magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck the area in 2008 as well as the Korean expatriate community who are trapped between two worlds abound. These help to ground the story in a real world environment but do nothing to further it or add new layers to Dong-ha and May’s attempts to get back together.
What you have left is a competently made but otherwise unremarkable film. A Good Rain Knows made by a different director might have been a better film, but as it stands it is a disappointment both as part of the canon of Korean romance films as well as Hur Jin-ho’s body of work. Currently the man has just finished working on another Korean-Chinese production starring Zhang Ziyi, Cecilia Cheung, and Jang Dong-gun. Adapted from the infamous French novel Dangerous Liaisons Hur seems to be headed towards eroticism and a baroque visual style, employing Kim Byung-seo again as cinematographer. Hopefully this new direction will yield far better future films than A Good Rain Knows.
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