Film Review: Modern Boy

BOTTOM LINE: A flimsy and poorly executed period romance that doesn't support its grand, epic structure.

Pusan International Film Festival
Asian Film Market

A decadent thirtysomethig playboy falls into the dragnet of a femme fatale with a dozen disguises and becomes a hero of Korean independence. With a formula that worked for "Casablanca" and a budget exceeding $8.1 million for CG re-creations of Japanese colonial architecture in Seoul, how can Jung Ji-woo's "Modern Boy" go wrong?

Yet, go wrong it did. Initial audience interest in the film's expensive effects and adventurous story outline will subside with negative word-of-mouth as anticipation turns into infuriation at the glaring technical and aesthetic flaws of this lukewarm love story with a dawdling narrative and no epic grandeur.

Park Hae-il, who plays ordinary losers to a T, lacks the confident swagger and matinee-idol looks to be Lee Hae-myung, a dapper dandy who accidentally joins the anti-Japanese resistance when he falls for mysterious nightclub singer and Dietrich look-alike Nam-chil (Kim Hye-soo). For the most part, he goes on a wild goose chase interspersed with poorly designed action sequences. Only the CG-generated architectural landmarks and districts of 1930s Seoul impress, but they lack the loving, refined detail of similar re-creations of '50s Tokyo in "Always: Sunset on Third Street."

Hae-myung's betrayal by his Japanese buddy (Lee Han) is a perfunctorily patriotic contrivance handled more convincingly in the same-era "Green Swallow," but it could still serve as a turning point in his awakening national identity. Yet he is never more than a wimpy romantic, begging Nam-chil to escape to Manchuria to "bake cookies" at the climax of their mission.

Jung, with only two intimate romances in his resume, lacks the directorial clout and technical know-how to envisage and execute a project of sweeping nostalgic sentiment. He employs jarringly contemporary cinematography, often shooting the lovers in shaky closeups with a handheld camera in intentional yet pointless out-of-focus shots.

The score is frequently anachronistic, with bands playing bebop, and traditional Korean-Japanese enka songs mutating into jingoistic K-pop. Only costume design is on the ball, as if Savile Row has been hired on set to tailor a parade of tapering tuxes and streamlined suits. But the same immaculate taste is not applied to props and interiors that look like sets on modern TV dramas.

Cast: Park Hae-il, Kim Hye-soo, Lee Han.
Director-screenwriter-editor: Jung Ji-woo.
Executive producer: Kim Joo-sung.
Producer: Kang Woo-sik.
Director of photography: Kim Tae-kyoung.
Production designer: Cho Sang-kyeong.
Music: Lee Jae-jin.
Editor: Wong Su-ahn.
Costumes: Jung Kyung-hee.
Sales Agent: CJ Entertainment.
No rating, 123 minutes.
Production: Showbox, CJ Entertainment, KNJ Entertainment.