By Pierce Conran
A terrific period setting is squandered in the disappointing C'est si bon, a twee and lethargic romance masquerading as a dynamic folk music biopic. Programmed as one of this year's two major Lunar New Year holiday releases (the other being period action-comedy sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island), Kim Hyun-seok's sixth film seeks to expand on the director's proven credentials in the rom-com field (Cyrano Agency, 2010) by enticing older viewers with music and period detail designed to evoked their youth.
In the 1960s, the Korean folk music scene begins to blossom within the famous C'est si bon music hall, as university students strut their stuff on the stage. Two of them, Song Chang-sik and Yoon Hyong-jo, are brought together to form a group by the venue's organizers, while an amateur, Oh Geun-tae, joins them to form the C'est si bon Trio. When Min Ja-young enters the picture, they all fall for her as she inspires their music.
The above synopsis is more or less what has been advertised since the project was announced early last year, but it really only describes the film's first (and best) half-hour. Song Chang-sik and Yoon Hyong-jo became the famous folk duo Twin Folio, but they are relegated to the background following the first act. Instead, the story focuses on a very traditional and chaste romance between Oh Geun-tae and Min Ja-young, who are fictional characters with loose connections to other figures from the 60s folk music scene. Furthermore, a lengthy final chapter jumps ahead 30 years and focuses exclusively on these two protagonists and their manifold (and horribly contrived) missed connections.
One of the film's biggest selling points is its music. Seeing the future stars get up on the stage for the first time is quite a thrill, particularly in the case of Song Chang-sik, but once the trio is formed, the same two or three songs are sung repeatedly throughout the rest of the 122-minute film. Also, likely in a bid not to alienate younger viewers accustomed to autotuned Kpop, the music here sounds anachronistically over-produced. Of course, for foreign viewers not familiar with the musicians, this might not make a great deal of difference either way.
Forgetting the film's setting and marketing, it's worth discussing the merit of C'est si bon as a romantic drama. The relationship is a very old-fashioned one, likely for the benefit of older viewers, but sadly it's one that lacks spark. Jung Woo is fine as the lead who is only too happy to have caught the popular girl's eye but Han Hyo-joo is unconvincing as the muse and budding actress, which kills any potential chemistry between the two.
It doesn't help that the production overplays its hand in some its most emotional scenes, including one of bitter disappointment for Geun-tae, which is accompanied by a blaring score that would be far more appropriate for the devastating climax of a thriller. Later on, Kim Yun-seok and Kim Hee-ae play the same characters in the 90s, US-set sequences. Despite the presence of the veteran stars, these melodramatic sequences are tedious and lack a real emotional payoff.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast fares much better. Kim In-gwon is ace in a small role as another music luminary of the time while Jin Goo adds some cool to his band manager. However, if C'est si bon has achieved anything, it is to introduce us to the electric Jo Bok-rae, playing the confident and scruffy Song Chang-sik. Meanwhile, Kang Ha-neul feels a touch too fake as the cookie-cutter Yoon Hyong-jo.
Director Kim gets the film off to a good start with an engrossing and energetic period feel, mostly within the C'est si bon club, but once he moves away from the music he loses his handle on the material. The production design and costumes look great but the film's affected style and performances beggar belief, keeping us removed from the heart that Kim's script strives for.
Were it not for its music and a couple of strong cast members, C'est si bon might've been a woefully misjudged romantic drama. As it stands, it doesn't sink quite that low, but it struggles to stay afloat.