Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Neighbors (이웃사람, Yiwootsaram) 2012

Recently, the prevalence of ensemble casts in Korean cinema has been on the rise. It could mean a few things. For one, it’s a sign of a healthy industry with a large production slate and a wide pool of talent. Secondly, it could also be a result of the dwindling fortunes of star-driven features at the box office. Studios may feel safer investing in a film with an array of stars capable of drawing in multiple demographics, especially when reliable properties such as Song Kang-ho (Howling, 2012) and So Ji-sub (Always, 2011) are no longer capable of securing a film a profit.

Last month, The Thieves showed how powerful an impact a well-assembled cast can make on the box office. It is currently the second highest-grossing Korean film of all time and may well ascend to first place (as of this writing held by 2006’s The Host) within the next few weeks. While it had many selling points, first and foremost was its glitzy performers. What then is the appeal of an ensemble cast? From a marketing standpoint it means that a potential viewer is far more likely to see someone that he or she likes in a longer list of stars but perhaps even more enticing is the appeal of the interaction between high-profile cast members who often sport defined on-screen personas.

Neighbors, coming only a few weeks after The Thieves, rode to an impressive debut weekend on the back of its own ensemble cast. It may not have names quite as impressive as Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Jeon Ji-hyeon and Simon Lam (among others) but almost everyone featured on its tiled 9-face poster would be recognizable to a homegrown audience. Kim Yoon-jin (famous in the west for her run on Lost) is a bonafide Korean star but almost everyone else in this production is known as a supporting player. They are what you would call working actors, and there is no shortage of them in the Korean film industry.

A middle-school student doesn’t come home from school one day and his found dead 10 days later. Her stepmother bears enormous guilt for failing to pick her up from the bus stop that day and things aren’t made any easier by the presence of another girl in the same apartment complex who bears a striking resemblance to her. One of the residents of the building has been acting suspiciously and many of his neighbors begins to suspect him though they all hold back from telling anyone for personal reasons.

The film has a lot going for it, not least because of its excellent cast, but it hits a hurdle in its packed and messy structure. Neighbors is based on a popular web comic by none other than Kang Pool, whose previous work has been adapted into Late Blossom and Pained (both 2011) among others. Perhaps director Kim Whee was reticent to trim too much out of the original work but he should have taken some care to adapt the story into a workable film format, which it never quite achieves. The script earnestly gives each protagonist plenty of screen time and fleshed-out backstories but this overburdens a film with a relatively simple conceit. I admire the effort but it may have been better served in a longer form medium such as a mini-series.

Then again this seems to be an endemic problem throughout Kim Whee’s work. Neighbors is his debut as a director but he has previously been on writing duties for Haeundae (2009), Harmony (2010) and Over My Dead Body (2012), all films which tried too hard to make too many people compelling. When you’re working with 10 or more characters it’s okay to have a couple of caricatures thrown in to allow others to breathe.

All that said, the cast is stellar and makes for a good enough reason to see the film. Kim Seong-kyoon, as the potential killer, and Ma Dong-seok, as a low-rent hood living in the complex, play roles that are not all that dissimilar from this year’s hit Nameless Gangster (which they both starred in) but prove that they have the chops to go the distance in this industry. Cheon Ho-jin has been in far more films than I could list here but he proves once again why he is one of the most reliable performers in the business. Kim Yoon-jin, as expected, delivers the goods but I’m a little concerned that she is becoming viciously typecast in a way that resembles former great Seol Kyeong-goo’s slow descent into commercial anonymity, which I examined in an earlier piece on Troubleshooter (2010). The child actress Kim Sae-ron continues to impress in her double role and I imagine she has a long career ahead of her.

There’s actually a lot I liked about Neighbors and often I was quite invested in it but as it performed the ritualistic Korean cinema dance of meandering through generic territory it lost its footing. It seemed unsure of itself, perhaps buried under the narrative demands of too many moving parts. It’s a diverting work to be sure, which explores lots of interesting territory, but ultimately it isn’t a satisfying experience.


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