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After delving into the Korean socio-political mind ever so delicately in the almost-great Good Morning President, director Jang Jin switches gears to take a crack at one of two genres that are going most of the way to defining the Korean industry today.
One of these is the revenge thriller and the other is the stalwart tragic melodrama. Jang mines the rich tradition and almost does something new and subtly irreverent — the way he snubbed his nose at the gangster drama in Guns & Talks — but ultimately the film is weighed down by its own grand interplay of sorrow and closure among a host of other themes in the sometimes overstuffed film.
Romantic Heaven may find something of a life in small to moderate Asian art house release, where this kind of weepy, pseudo-mystical navel-gazing is popular, but overseas success will come first and foremost on the festival circuit, and later on DVD from Asian cinema buffs familiar with Jang’s work.
The story as it is hinges on a clutch of seemingly disconnected people who cross paths at a hospital: a sensitive cabbie Ji-wook (Kim Dang-wook) caring for an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandparent; Mi-Mi (Kim Ji-won) and her quest to find the perfect bone marrow donor for her dying mother, who happens to be accused of murdering her girlfriend; and a lawyer, Min-gyu (Kim Su-ro), mourning the loss of his wife. As fate, or Korean cinema, would have it their counterparts are gazing down upon their loved ones from a candyland heaven, enjoying music on Philips CD players and dealing with their own version of remorse and regret. Oh, and God wears a white suit.
Romantic Heaven is wracked with tonal shifts that are jarring and distracting, and it could use some judicious editing to the tune of at least 20 minutes. Heaven makes it debut about halfway through and comes a bit out of left field. Is this supposed to be a black comedy? There are flourishes of stylistic and situational silliness and absurdity — the bumbling detectives, Min-gyu and his colleague Kyung-ja’s matching retro Adidas tracksuits, and God’s claims that he’s a Buddhist as a start — but it turns serious on a dime. It makes for an uneven viewing experience at the least. It never quite makes it to Afterlife-style thoughtfulness and it’s not helped by across the board performances that border on hysterical rather than intensely emotional.
Again, Jang comes close to stepping outside the boundaries the industry has unconsciously set down for itself, and again, he never really gets around to shaking things up, even though he teases us with hints that he might.
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