‘C'est Si Bon’: Film Review
This reassessment of the golden years of South Korea’s Western-style folk music scene follows a trio of musicians through the turbulent era
A curious conflation of historical nostalgia and speculative events drives C'est Si Bon, a musical drama set amidst South Korea’s folk music scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Primarily of interest to a sizeable fanbase of the era’s lightweight acoustic balladry, Kim Hyun-suk’s sixth feature debuted atop last weekend’s domestic box office, but seems likely to appeal mostly to niche markets overseas.
The venerable Seoul music venue C'est Si Bon (“It’s So Good”) helped launch the careers of numerous folk musicians from the period, among them the well-regarded duo “Twin Folio,” featuring Yoon Hyeon-ju and Song Chang-shik on vocals and acoustic guitars. With Korean interpretations of “Wedding Cake” by Connie Francis and Nana Mouskouri’s “White Handkerchief,” the two young men began a storied professional career, which becomes the departure point for Kim’s reimagining of their partnership by adding a fictional third bandmember to create a trio.
It all begins with a journalist’s perfunctory interview of songwriter and producer Lee Jang-hui (Jang Hyun-sung), initiating an extended flashback to the late 1960s and Seoul’s trendy Mugyo-dong district, where C'est Si Bon represents a major draw for university students skipping out on their studies to catch a variety of low-key musical acts. Among the performers contending for kudos at the music cafe are current favorite Yoon Hyeon-ju (Kang Ha-neul), a medical student with a preference for American folk tunes, and Song Chang-shik (Jo Bok-rae), a challenger with classical music training and a commanding tenor voice.
They both prove so charismatic that C'est Si Bon's owner proposes to pair them in a duo in preparation for a recording gig, but Lee suggests a trio instead, after hearing the soulful baritone voice of Oh Geun-tae (Jung Woo), who has recently arrived from out of town. Trained in a church choir as a youth, Oh can read music but needs practice with Lee to learn and perfect his guitar-work. Fame and a regular weekly salary aren’t Oh’s only motivations; there’s also Min Ja-young (Han Hyo-joo), a pretty young aspiring actress who frequents the cafe.
As the young men of the “C'est Si Bon Trio” compete for Min’s attention and work to develop a repertoire of songs, it’s Oh who wins out, beguiling Min with his country-boy charm and honest demeanor. As her acting career begins to gain attention, Min warns him that their romance may only be temporary, but he’s so smitten that he’s blind to any competition for her love, failing to recognize that the outcome of their relationship will have a defining impact on the band and its emerging role in Korean folk music.
Stretching the concept of a musical biopic to fictional proportions proves a somewhat awkward process for Kim, particularly in a third act that jumps forward 20 years to catch up with the characters in contemporary Los Angeles. The reexamination of the musicians’ careers that ensues, burdened by an extraneous subplot involving the repressive policies of the anti-democratic Korean regimes of the 70s, becomes excessively unwieldy before descending into a well of sentimentality.
While many of the Korean musical numbers are energetically performed in close harmony or delicate solos by the talented cast of charismatic young actors, even the adaptations of American pop tunes may prove mostly baffling to foreign audiences unfamiliar with the local folk movement of the time. Kim renders the period setting realistically enough however, particularly in showcasing the interior of C'est Si Bon, with its devoted coterie of youthful, enthusiastic music fans and rotating roster of idolized performers.
Production companies: JFilm and Moove Pictures
Cast: Jung Woo, Han Hyo-joo, Kang Ha-neul, Jin Goo, Jo Bok-rae, Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hee-ae
Director-writer: Kim Hyun-suk
Producers: Lee Woo-Jeung, Kang Myung-chan, Edward G. Choi
Executive producers: Jeong Tae-sung, Kwon Mi-kyung, Park Ji-sung
Director of photography: Lee Mo-Gae
Production designers: Kim June, Choi Yon-sik
Costume designer: Chae Kyung- hwa
Editors: Kim Jae-bum Kim Sang-bum
Music: Lee Byung-hoon
No rating, 118 minutes