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A sensual May-December romance between a popular romance writer and her student-turned-assistant takes a tragic turn when her early onset Alzheimer’s asserts itself in Butterfly Sleep, the surprisingly insipid, long-time-coming sophomore feature by Jeong Jae-eun. Jeong made a splash in 2001 with the coming-of-age film Take Care of My Cat, which pivoted on a group of five female friends transitioning from high school to adulthood and featured Bae Doona’s (The Host, Sense8) breakout performance. In Butterfly Sleep, Jeong switches gears to work with an established pan-Asian star — Nakayama Miho — in a far less enlightening and culturally specific terminal-illness romance, which by this point in time should be a subgenre unto itself in the Korean and Japanese industries. The co-production brings hunky South Korean model-actor Kim Jae-uck into the fold as the younger man that falls for Nakayama’s older, ill writer.
The combined Japanese and Korean crew is top flight, and so the final product is as polished and high spec as expected. Their Distance cinematographer Iwanaga Hiroshi’s images are suitably luminous, and Lee Younglim’s editing is seamless (if pedestrian). Nakayama’s broad popularity in Asia should assure the film moderate success in the region, and Jeong’s return could be of interest on the international women’s circuit, but the otherwise generic storytelling and cliched, TV-ready narrative make digital outlets the best fit for the material.
During an evening out with her class, author and writing teacher Ryoko Ayamine (Nakayama) meets the handsome, much younger Oh Chan-tae (Kim), a Korean former student in Japan who is now a waiter who is sleeping in the restaurant Ryoko dines in. He’s also an aspiring writer, and after he returns the prized fountain pen she dropped — because as a true artiste, she writes longhand — the duo strikes up a friendship based on his pet care and typing skills that eventually leads to romance. But not wanting to burden Chan-tae with a gruesome future caring for an Alzheimer’s patient, and with too much pride, Ryoko pushes him away, claiming she doesn’t really love him. At her ex-husband Ryuhei’s (Sugata Shun) recommendation and because in melodrama Alzheimer’s progresses at warp speed, Ryoko checks herself into a nursing home, presumably to die alone.
Butterfly Sleep is loaded with capital-d drama, much of which is either baffling or entirely free of logic. Jeong, who also wrote the script, displays none of the keen perception and sensitivity that informed of her debut, instead heading right down the middle of the road for a one-note love story whose conclusion is all but pre-ordained. Several plot threads that could have added texture to the larger story are introduced and abandoned: the school’s dean is displeased with Ryoko’s relationship with the re-enrolled Chan-tae and threatens her job; another student (Shibuya Asami) is a rival for either Chan-tae or Ryoko’s attention, which is never made clear before the point is dropped; the fate of Ryoko’s pudgy Lab Tombo, who goes missing, is never resolved, despite being set up for a sugary payoff. There’s plenty of time, however, to showcase Ryoko’s staggering array of asymmetrical designer outfits. Butterfly Sleep is most egregiously lazy, however, in its reliance on that most irritating of tropes: lying about real feelings in lieu of having an adult conversation in order to spare a lover emotional pain. This needs to end.
The normally appealing Nakayama isn’t given much to work with, initially coming across as obnoxiously entitled, and occasionally as someone who just sucks at life (what sadist walks their dog once per week?). Kim’s Chan-tae never really gets to rise above cipher status and do more than shed a few single man tears. That said, the leads do have a nice chemistry that could easily have been the framework upon which to build a better story about a young man, his older girlfriend and their mutual, clear-eyed decisions to continue a relationship heading for a significant challenge. Or better still, a simple love story that takes a serious look at the associated stigma of a professional woman’s relationship with a younger man in Japan. But Butterfly Sleep, as it stands, will give Jeong the popular success the more creative Cat couldn’t.
Production company: Zoa Films, Siglo
Cast: Nakayama Miho, Kim Jae-uck, Mashima Hidekazu, Katsumura Masanobu, Sugata Shun, Nagase Masatoshi, Shibuya Asami
Director-screenwriter: Jeong Jae-eun
Producers: Yamagami Tetsujiro, Sakamoto Toshiaki, Lee Eunkyoung
Director of photography: Iwanaga Hiroshi
Editor: Lee Younglim
Music: Niigaki Takashi
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: M-Line
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