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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Jeonju 2013: Cheer Up Mr. Lee (힘내세요, 병헌씨, 2012)

Part of MKC's coverage of the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival.

If you watch a lot of films, it’s hard not to get at least a little excited when a new film about filmmaking comes along. While not a golden recipe for surefire success, the subgenre yields a surprisingly strong crop of works, in part due to their self-deprecating nature. The Woodman and the Rain, This Is Not a Film and The Woman in the Septic Tank are among the many recent films to successfully go down this route. Not to mention that the old adage holds, you should write about what you know.

Korean competition film Cheer Up Mr. Lee follows other entries in this rich tradition. A mockumentary about a fledgling director’s attempts to make his feature debut, the film takes place in a lively behind the scenes milieu and frequently pokes fun at its characters while also acting as a darker character study of
a bitter man who, in many respects, has already failed.

A small film crew documents the life of wannabe director Lee Byeong-hun as he drinks incessantly with his friends and loafs around his studio apartment, seemingly trying to write his feature film debut. As his lazy routine and poor demeanor seem to be getting him nowhere, the crew is about to give up on him when he suddenly turns in a half-decent first draft of a script. He and his producer get hired by a production company for their debut but then proceed to linger in the difficult development process.

Funny, irreverent and fresh, Cheer Up Mr. Lee gets off to a great start but it doesn’t take long for things to settle into a repetitive narrative that consistently fails to use the many tools at its disposal. Events such as a trip to the Busan International Film Festival or behind the scenes production meetings rarely live up to their promise. For a film about filmmaking, we get to see very little of that world outside of the film’s first act.

Granted, the film is trying to show us a stubborn man who has become bitter over time. Divorced, borderline alcoholic and a disappointment to his parents, he might have been a character worthy of interest if he weren’t so unlikeable. In the first act his blithe attitude is amusing but it quickly becomes a turn-off as he never grows during the rest of the film. It should be noted that the films is based on the direcor’s own experience.

Despite some awkward attempts at humor and undynamic plotting, Cheer Up Mr. Lee does have its moments, I’m just not sure they amount to a compelling narrative. Perhaps the film’s biggest stumbling block is its ending, which is mostly taken by a short film within a film. It’s both a joke as well as an exploration of the lead character’s mental state but by taking up far too much screen time and thereby switching the film’s gears so late in the narrative, it’s very jarring. Perhaps worse is that is seems indulgent, particularly as it either based on or is the real short that the director made in 2009, which won the main prize at the Asiana International Short Film Festival.

Failing to explore the fertile grounds of the filmmaking world, despite many chances, and suffering from symbolic but ultimately unnecessary repetition, Cheer Up Mr. Lee can’t quite pull itself together. It’s trying to hard to be something else without really committing to that dramatic realm. As Lee’s film seems stuck somewhere between two worlds, I suggest you try the far superior Let Me Out if you want to see a Korean film about filmmaking.


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