By Pierce Conran
Normally, when a Korean film's characters decamp to the countryside, we can expect terrible things to happen. But Yim Soon-rye's new film offers a refreshing take on this standard formula. While bad things also befall the characters in South Bound, there's a welcome levity to the proceedings.
A family man decides to move his family to an island when life under the finger of the government becomes too much for him. He smashes CCTV cameras in his neighborhood, refuses to have his fingers printed at the police station (during one of his many visits), and thumbs his nose at politicians. Along with his wife and his two youngest children, he moves to a small island off the southern coast to begin a new life in a dilapidated hut, free from the shackles of oppression.
Tellingly, South Bound did not strike a chord with Korean viewers, at least not at the box office. This, despite the presence of Kim Yun-seok, who is just coming off a streak of gigantic hits, including The Chaser (2008), Running Turtle (2009), Woochi (2009), The Yellow Sea (2010), Punch (2011) and The Thieves (2012). This is his first misfire in five years, but the film's poor returns are more than likely a result of the narrative's content, which is piquantly anti-establishmentarian.
As usual, Kim is on fine form as a cantankerous, erstwhile activist documentary filmmaker, perpetually getting on people's nerves, not least of which his family. Frequently hilarious, Kim's blusterous charm and deadpan intensity mirrors his other roles, though here, much like in the wonderful Punch, it's mostly played for laughs. He's ably assisted by a great supporting cast, which includes: Oh Yeon-su as his wife in her first film role after 15 years; Baek Seung-hwan as the younger son, a big change of pace after his victimized character in 2011's harrowing Silenced; and the red-hot Kim Sung-kyun, coming off strong supporting turns in Nameless Gangster and Neighbors (both 2012).
One of Korea's foremost female directors, Yim Soon-rye now has six features, including 2010's wonderful Rolling Home With a Bull, under her belt. Given the variety of her output, it's difficult to pin her down, but most of her works exhibit a balance between commercial sensibilities and artistic expression. Her women's handball film Forever the Moment was low budget and very personal, and yet it became a huge hit in 2008. Showing them for what they are, she never dresses up the characters in her films, which is part of what makes them so relatable.
With South Bound, she once again straddles that border between art and commerce by making the country's biggest film star a political dissident and sticking him on a pulpit. However, though her film does highlight a number of social grievances, it does so with a light tone that, particularly in the final act, sometimes undermines its impact. Yim tries to toe the line a little too much and while it by no means derails the film, it feels a little limp and ends with a whimper.
The family's move to an island is a significant one. Aside from being a hallmark of the horror genre, the relationship between rural and urban space on screen - representing traditionalism and progress - has particular implications for Korea, a country that has developed at a staggering speed. This conflict seeps into the central plot of the narrative but it also seems evident in Yim's directorial style, as she doesn't fully commit to political activism.
Overall, Yim's latest is an enjoyable film, and a surprisingly nonconformist addition to Lotte Entertainment's roster, though it lacks the impact that its premise hints at. Largely carried by another stellar performance by the charismatic and ever reliable Kim Yun-seok, South Bound is worth the trip.
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