Yim Soonrye could lay claim to being the first female director to forge a lasting career in the Korean film industry. Indeed, she has one of the most varied filmographies among current filmmakers, yet ironically, or perhaps necessarily, she rose to prominence by making a pair of films that explored Korean masculinity far more successfully than the majority of her male contemporaries. 14 years on, her second feature Waikiki Brothers (2001) stands up as one of the best works of contemporary Korean cinema. Though the movement is generally considered to have ended with Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy in 1999, it’s also a film that could easily be included among the best of the Korean New Wave.
The story has a slice of life feel to it as we learn about the many characters surrounding Sung-woo in mostly episodic fashion. As for the frontman, he’s mostly a stable rock just about keeping the balance among his more fractured peers, yet we do get some insight into him as we delve into his past as a budding musician in high school. Despite the lack of major plot points, the narrative has a clear focus as its aims are steadily fulfilled in a film whose pacing drives everything towards a powerful finish.
A lot of future stars appear in Yim's film, and each of them embodies a different facet of modern Korean malaise as they circle around Sung-woo. Among them are terrific early roles from Hwang Jung-min, Park Won-san and Ryoo Seung-bum, not to mention Park Hae-il as Sung-woo in his high school years. More often than not, when the going gets tough their protagonists break down and begin to blame others for their misery or cursing the bad luck they’ve been born with. While their circumstances are undeniably difficult, Yim’s film makes a point of highlighting the sad prominence of scapegoating in Korea, a trait passed down to bitter youths through a strictly hierarchical society which perpetually pollinates its way through Korea’s subsequent generations.
A seemingly calm, non-judgmental core, all these side characters gather around Sung-woo for a shoulder to cry on or a non-reactionary entity to vent their frustrations out on. He followed his dream and makes a living as a musician but the bitterness of his hard life quietly builds up inside him. Playing the straight man, as it were, Lee Eol sports a quiet countenance throughout, yet his seeming imperviousness to the setbacks that befall him gives him an aura of calm confidence. He’s either a calming influence at the core of his circle, or perhaps a sponge that reticently clings to both his hardships and those of others. Late in the film he briefly acts out when everything simply becomes too much to bare, only to be at his most subservient in the following scene, when he is forced to strip in a dingy karaoke room, morosely performing for a group of nude fat cats and dancing prostitutes.
That scene, one of the film’s highlights, shows off Yim’s particular knack for black comedy, not unlike the humor found in the works of Bong Joon-ho. Another terrific example is when Hwang Jung-min breaks down into histrionic tears on the phone as he drives a bus filled with perplexed passengers.
With a mise-en-scene that is coolly effective rather than aesthetically striking, Yim places the emphasis on her characters, while also providing a tight structure that elevates what might in other hands have been weighty drama. Her keen sense for mood and dialogue, as well as her effortless skill for weaving many layers into an smooth whole, make Waikiki Brothers an essential Korean work that has and should continue to stand the test of time. Yim has gone on to achieve commercial success while also effectively tackling other themes in a variety of mainstream and indie works, but this may be her magnum opus.
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