Wednesday, August 29, 2012

KOFFIA 2012: Disney, Nostalgia, and Politics in Sunny (써니, Sseo-ni) 2011

Part of MKC's coverage of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia (previously published).

Delve into any well-balanced childhood and you’re sure to find a candy store: our ephemeral youth’s source of confectionary delights and perpetual euphoria. During my childhood I had a particularly aggressive sweet tooth and the easiest way to motivate my obedience or to inspire my eternal adoration was to drag me into a store full of sweets. I grew older and these gave way to popcorn as I found myself gazing up at the silver screen, the candy store of my adulthood. Between these two worlds lies a transition and at the forefront of it, an enduring symbol that came both before and will likely remain long after. I speak of Disney, the dream factory that is also the world’s most powerful media conglomerate. It is a kaleidoscopic candy store that titillates our senses beyond our sweet-craving taste buds. It is also calculating, cloying and devious but I seek not to denigrate its brilliant success, merely to point out what makes it so infectious: formula.

Just like the chemicals that bind together to delight our youthful, undeveloped palates in the candy store, the Walt Disney Company applies a rigid, time-tested formula to all of its products. The formula has many permutations and its application is effectuated, for film and animation, through themes, morals and standards, but also by way of a carefully constructed mise-en-scene. When done right, as it often is by Disney and even more frequently by its subsidiary Pixar, the result is clear: a good film that is guaranteed a solid ROI.

Recently, Koreans were bowled over by the extraordinary success of Sunny, a seemingly small production, as it laid local blockbusters to waste throughout the long summer doldrums, at least until War of the Arrows came along to save some face for the industry. First off I would like to contest the fact that Sunny was an unexpected sleeper hit. The media certainly portrayed it as such, and the people behind the film were happy to go along with that story, as an underdog’s success is always more palatable to the viewer. I believe that Sunny, in the revered tradition of the great Mouse house, relied on an intricate formula designed to hit all the right buttons. I’m certain that the filmmakers knew that they had a hit on their hands, if not quite aware of the heights that it would soar to.

When handled poorly, formula can sound the death bells for a film but when done right, both the filmmakers and the spectators reap the rewards. A recent New Yorker profile of Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008) and John Carter (2012), revealed the inner workings of the world’s most successful and consistent animation production house. Pixar films, as it turns out, are always a work in progress, early drafts and cuts are put forward to the Braintrust, an in-house think tank that collaboratively repairs any perceived problems. As Stanton said, “We're in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everyone's tying their best to do their best – and the films still suck for three of the four years it takes to make them.”

Sunny begins in the present and focusses on the comfortable life of mother and wife Na-mi. She visits her mother in hospital and recognizes a cancer-stricken occupant of an adjacent private room, an old high school friend whom she hasn’t seen in 25 years. They were close and part of a band of seven friends called ‘Sunny’. Saddened by her friend’s illness but reinvigorated with nostalgia she goes home and listens to one of her favorite songs from the 1980s. Soon after, she drives by her old school and witnesses a hoard of uniformed children making their way up the cobbled path leading towards the gate. She injects herself into the crowd and with the help of some dizzying camerawork, clever editing, a Disney-esque theme song and an across the board costume change, she is transported back to the 1980s, the scene of her youth. Today is the young Na-mi’s first day in a new school.

I don’t know what the developmental process was for Sunny but it is something I would be very keen to find out a little more about. The exquisite craft in its making seems effortless, which almost always means that a huge amount of effort was expended to get it to that point. During the first transition to the past, on the path to the school, I was immediately reminded of Disney, and that impression sunk in as I delved deeper into the narrative. Sunny was awarded, among other notable prizes, Best Editing at the 31st Daejong Film Awards (the Korean equivalent to the Oscars). Now that I have seen it, I can see that there was really no competition in that category. Rarely is any film, let alone a Korean one, so well edited. The look, feel, and especially the nostalgia of the film reminds me of one of my personal favorites, the criminally overlooked French Canadian coming of age film C.R.A.Z.Y. (2003).  Particularly the magnificent moment in the scene where the young Na-mi follows the boy she likes to a café bar. He comes up from behind and puts his headphones on her, instantly flooding the soundtrack with an engrossing song. The nostalgia effect is crucial to Sunny’s success, but far-be-it from only appealing to adults who came of age in the 1980s, the radiating, bombastic and positively addictive soundtrack is, just like C.R.A.Z.Y., one of the chief elements which makes it nigh on impossible to resist.

The flashback sequences, which take up a little more than half of the film’s running time, are, like our merry band of youthful protagonists, sunny. In fact, they are positively sundrenched. Considering how much it rains Korea, this seems like an element that has been exaggerated to more effectively transport the audience, collectively, back to their youth, or at least the parts we like to remember. Of course memory is very deceptive and we do frequently remember things differently from the way they actually happened. Colours are also exaggerated in the film, for instance the predominant ones in the present are monochromatic: from the black and white of the school uniforms; the clean sunlit living room of Na-mi’s home; the caustic white of the hospital’s rooms and corridors; and the general lack of colour in the wintry surroundings. In the past, the colour palate is explosive: the bold primaries of the un-uniformed children; the many different Nike bags; the make-up; the accessories; and the verdant colours of spring.

The 1980s, just like much of the 20th century, was a difficult time for Korea. A few years earlier, one autocratic president (Park Chung-hee) was assassinated and replaced with another (Chun Doo-hwan) and then the decade got off to an awful start with the infamous Gwangju massacre. It was only near the end of the decade that signs of a more liberated Korea began to emerge.  Sunny’s protagonists seem to live in a bubble: they are more concerned with their Nike handbags than with the political turmoil of the period. They are young and perhaps they do not understand what is going on but the film prominently features indications of troubled times: Na-mi’s brother is a political activist and is at odds with his parents; platoons of soldiers entertain themselves in alleys as others go about their business. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, ‘Sunny’ goes head to head with a rival gang alongside student activists battling it out with riot police. Their behavior references the jop’ok (gang) culture which pervades the flashbacks of the film. Their leader Choon-hwa (Kang So-ra) is reminiscent of both Jang Dong-gun in Friend (2001) and Kwon Sang-woo in Once Upon a Time in High School (2004). While the popularity of gang culture in the 1980s may well have had something to do with the social ills of the time, I wondered how 'Sunny' could be so disconnected with what was happening around them. Is it apathy, ignorance or escapism?  In any case, for some of the characters, things don’t end up so sunny, so perhaps this signifies that, ultimately, no one in Korea was immune to the troubles of the time.

The film features a lot of protagonists and twice as many actors to portray them in both the past and the present, naturally a lot of the success of the film relies on how well they inhabit their roles and how they interact with one another.  Thankfully, the cast is fit for the task and uniformly wonderful, they make Sunny a joy to watch. Particularly impressive is Shim Eun-kyeong as the young Na-mi, while very eccentric, her performance shows off her great comic timing and her endearing naivety. While only 16, she has already built up an impressive resume, including: Possessed (2009), The Quiz Show Scandal (2010), and Romantic Heaven (2011).

As previously mentioned, the editing in Sunny is masterful. It is also well complemented by spirited cinematography, great costumes and strong production design. All of these elements come together under the direction of Kang Hyeong-cheol, who expertly brings to life his own sensational script. Kang previously made the enormously successful Scandal Makers (2008) but he has outdone himself this time around by deftly applying a formula of friendship, music, memory, social commentary and a little Disney Magic, to what is easily one of the finest films of 2011.


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