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Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Look at Korean Comedy and Mr. XXX-Kisser (아부의 왕, 2012)


Many films passed through Korean theaters last year and a great number of them made their presence felt. But of course for every chart-topping hit there were many projects that failed to make their way to profitability. One such film that came and went during the sweltering summer months was Mr. XXX-Kisser (aka The King of Flattery, and I can’t see why they didn’t stick to that far superior English title), a mid-level comedy with no huge stars and very modest ambitions.

Korean cinema is known for being prolific in its handling of genres. Each year the industry puts out a number of titles that fit different categories and wind up with varying levels of success. High profile thrillers, melodramas, romcoms and period dramas are among the most popular offerings. Other genres are also frequently mined to a lesser degree of success such as horror. Though a few of those are churned out every 12 months, they seem to be a dying breed.


One permanent genre, popular across the world in any format, is comedy. Korea, just like anywhere else, produces a number of these annually. I wonder if studios feel it’s expected of them because the truth is, the vast majority of these films make no money and their thrown-together fashion often begs the question of whether they’re really making an effort.

Paired with other genres these can sometimes work very well. Last year gave us the period-comedy The Grand Heist, the melodrama-comedy Dancing Queen and the romantic comedy All About My Wife, all of which cracked the top 10. Other combinations have met with less success, such as the spy comedy The Spies, the gangster comedy Marrying the Mafia 5 (though previous installments have been huge hits), the horror comedy Ghost Sweepers and the crime comedy Miss Conspirator. But when all alone, comedy tends to be a very lonely genre in Korean cinema. Last year’s highest-grossing one was Over My Dead Body, which, at no.33 on the yearly chart, failed to crack a million admissions. Mr. XXX-Kisser was even further behind, with less than half of that.


Why is it that comedy has a hard time attracting Korean viewers to theaters? I don’t know the answer to this question but it could have something to do with the fact that they’re not event pictures (unless paired with another genre in some cases), as these tend to be cheap productions. Also, as previously mentioned, the slapdash nature of these works may be a deterrent for viewers. They’re not extremely imaginative and what’s worse is this leads to the worst thing of all, they’re sometimes a little lacking in the laughs department.

So how does Mr. XXX-Kisser fit into this picture? As expected it’s a fairly run of the mill effort that largely relies on its good cast to entertain viewers. The concept, of a young insurance salesman who must suddenly clear off a big debt and decides to enlist the help of a master of flattery to boost his sales record, is hardly original or compelling. It’s declares itself succinctly, has some fun demonstrating the apprentice’s blossoming charm skills and then proceeds to the big plan that will settle his dues. Simple and efficient, at least until it loses steam in the second half, the film is mostly a pleasant diversion.


What makes it work (when it does) is the cast. Song Sae-byeok’s sweet guy next-door image worked wonders for 2011’s hit Clash of the Families and here he plays off his same innocence to charming effect. As the master of flattery, Seong Dong-il gets to have a lot of fun while a foxy Kim Seong-ryeong, a gruff Ko Chang-seok and a pompous Lee Byeong-joon all lend a welcome hand to the proceedings. The only weak link is the pretty but breathlessly dull Han Chae-ah in a poorly written helpless innocent girl role. Thankfully she doesn’t get a lot of screen time but that also means there isn’t much of a female presence in the film

However, save for the engaging cast, there’s little here to recommend. Given debut director Jeong Seung-goo's pedigree, he previously worked on Yu Ha's A Dirty Carnival (2006) and was the assistant director on Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (2007), the result is a little disappointing. Granted the mold here is very commercial and since he was working with someone else's script, he may not have been granted much leeway. In the end, the story is pedestrian, the mise-en-scene rote and there’s little in the way of payoff. While the performers are almost able to keep it afloat, it’s just not enough.

★★☆☆


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