Friday, January 9, 2015

New Korean Films: Platonic Romance or Edonist Pleasure? (2015 Week 1)

by Fabien Schneider

After an excessively long break, I am pleased to announce that I am once again ready to make you discover every week the latest productions that find their way to South Korean theaters. Let me remind you the principle of this section: for each film I will briefly present the synopsis, then I will share my own commentary on the expectations that these films generate, the response of the public and critics, the way the film is promoted, and anything that might be relevant to assess the value (or lack thereof) of the film. It goes without saying that these comments are based solely on the information available at the time of writing. Of course, for the vast majority of these films, I would have not seen them before their theatrical release. Do not be surprised then if a movie that I would have viciously criticized turns out to be a wonder. So let's start this week with two very different movies.

Casa Amor: Exclusive for Ladies

Bo-hee is a business woman who places her career as the marketer of a toys’ brand before her family. Her husband is sexually frustrated, and his son feels abandoned. But following an unfortunate mistake during a presentation, she finds herself unemployed. As if it wasn’t enough to spoil her day, she comes back home only to find a note from her husband announcing their separation. Hopefully, she’ll attempt to retrieve her fortune by taking an unexpected job. Nan-hee owns a sex shop, and has become a true reference in matters of sex. According to her, the world is divided between women who take pleasure and those who don’t. But despite all her knowledge and experience, she still fails at selling her products. She decides to hire Bo-hee to promote her new line of “toys”.

This film is a total change of direction for Jung Bum-sik, who had hitherto made only horror films such as The Epitaph (2007) and Horror Stories (2012). This comedy movie has the benefit to be released without much competition. But I would say that the territories on which the director ventures are quite hazardous, since married women's sexuality is like a taboo subject in this country. This will obviously impact the attendance. There is also the trap of becoming a caricature of sexually-opened women or treating the subject only as a trick to satisfy the male gaze. Let's get that out of the way: the trailer doesn’t inspire much confidence. The jokes displayed in it all seem to play on the ridiculous or inconvenience caused by selling dildos. The movie in itself seems to be targeting young women in their twenties and thirties. I know, this seems quite obvious when the English title mentions that it's "exclusive for ladies", but keep in mind that the Korean title is just "Working Girl". The choice of the two main actresses therefore reflects this target audience. In the role of Bo-hee, we’ll see Jo Yeo-jeong give a try to comedy, after being best known for wearing Korean traditional dresses in period films such as The Servant (2010) and The Concubine (2012). The other one is a young British actress born in Switzerland who calls herself Clara. It’s her first major role in a film, but she has been a regular of TV romantic dramas since 2006. The Korean press seems to have been left unmoved, and the general audience does not show much more interest, but the figures of the presales are still pointing toward 6% of the box-office. This is probably not as much as had been planned by Megabox, which had scheduled a sizable distribution throughout the country.

Watch the Korean trailer here.

Snow is on the Sea

Seon-mi is a perfumer. In order to find inspiration for her creations, she spends a lot of time traveling in search of new scents. While visiting an aquarium, she meets one of the employees, Sang-woo. He loves nature and animals, but most importantly he emits a particular fragrance that reminds her of her father. They fall in love, but Seon-mi still cannot find the courage to tell him that she is suffering since her young age of myelodysplasia, a disease that could lead to leukemia.

Here comes yet another archetype of the Korean drama: a romantic story gone awry because of an incurable disease of the woman character. How unfortunate, that so many women seem to fall ill with such bad timing. Korean cinema has long been a pain if you’re a hypochondriac. But, okay, let’s look away from the fact that this disease affects predominantly older people. Hopefully this will be seen as an opportunity to talk about this poorly known disease other than merely as a dramatic device, but I have my doubts. Kim Jeong-kwon is not known for restraining himself from using easy dramatic ploys, so you better get ready for an overload of exacerbated feelings, romantic clichés and violin music. He debuted with Ditto (2000), an interesting film tainted by its soundtrack, but he has already shown in A Man Who Went to Mars (2003) that he can do better. The two main actors of this new movie are both young idols. Park Hae-il finally makes his film debut after having appeared in ultra-popular television dramas during the last two years (My Love from the Star reached audience peaks of 28% and is also quite popular in other East Asian countries). Lee Yeung-ah may be less known, but she is the main actress of the TV drama Rose Running currently running. With such arguments, there is no doubt that this movie is mainly aimed at an audience of teenage girls, but it also represents a serious threat to Casa Amor. Despite its smaller distribution (a few Lotte multiplexes in the bigger cities), this film could well outperform Casa Amor this weekend.

Watch the Korean trailer here.

New Korean Films is a weekly feature which provide an in-depth look at new local releases in Korea. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time). Reviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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