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A dramatized take based on his own documentary about a North Korean refugee’s life in China and South Korea, Jero Yun’s first fictional feature is a textbook case of how reality sometimes is much stranger and more gripping than fiction. Beautiful Days certainly lives up to its title with its mesmerizing imagery and very polished production values. But it is weighed down by a cliched narrative and simplistic moral binaries, both of which the French-educated South Korean filmmaker managed to subvert two years ago in the original doc Mrs B., A North Korean Woman.
Bowing at Cannes and later released in France, Mrs B. offered a real-life tale that ran very much against common expectations about what the experience of a North Korean refugee would be like. The titular protagonist got on well with the Chinese family she was sold to, took control of her life by becoming a trafficker herself, and ended up leading a non-descript working-class life as an office janitor in South Korea. In Beautiful Days, however, Jun has retreated to mining conventional melodrama for inspiration, as he subjects his heroine to a life of sleaze, violence and self-sacrifice.
Boasting the return of A-lister Lee Na-young in the role of the mother, after a five-year hiatus from the big screen, Beautiful Days should perform well on home turf when it opens in South Korea next month following its high-profile premiere as the opening film at Busan. Produced with French funds and buoyed by Jun’s blooming reputation abroad, it’s sufficiently topical to sustain a run on the international circuit.
The story begins somewhere in northeastern China, when Korean-Chinese university student Zhenchen (Jang Dong-yoon) learns from his dying father (Oh Kwang-rok) that his mother, who walked out on the family 14 years ago, is actually living in South Korea. Arriving in Seoul, the young man is shocked to find her operating a seedy drinking den to earn a living for herself and her unruly boyfriend (Seo Hyun-woo). After a few fights, verbal and physical, and with no reconciliation in sight, Zhenchen leaves for home with only some bags of new clothes his mother bought him.
Up to this point – that is, about halfway through the film – lethargy reigns supreme. But then Zhenchen discovers the diary her mother secretly slipped into his bags, and the drama kicks off. Through flashbacks, the young man learns of the exploitation and abuse she was subjected to by the pimp/trafficker (Lee Yoo-jun) who facilitated her escape from North Korea to China. He also learns about the blood-soaked incident that forced her to flee to South Korea. But there are more revelations in store concerning his mother’s traumatic first days in China and the identity of Zhenchen’s biological father.
Perhaps eager to offer some closure to his first foray out of indie territory, Jun ends Beautiful Days with a coda suggesting some semblance of a happy ending. It’s but one conscious departure from the gritty realism of his documentary work. The film is heavy in close-ups, jump cuts, slow-motion sequences and stylized lighting, as well as Mathieu Regnault’s markedly atmospheric score. While technically deft, these visual and musical conventions at times threaten to overwhelm the cast’s restrained performances. This holds especially true for Lee’s emotionally suppressed mother and Oh’s helpless, frail father. Their quietly seething performances are a model for achieving more with less.
Production company: peppermint & company
Cast: Lee Na-young, Jang Dong-yoon, Oh Kwang-rok
Director-screenwriter-editor: Jéro Yun Producer: Kim Hyun-woo
Director of photography: Kim Jong-sun
Production designer: Lee Mina
Costume designer: Jung Ru-bi
Music: Mathieu Regnault
Sales: Contents Panda
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