Always: Busan Film Review

Courtesy of BIFF
Song Il-gon invests heavily in clichés but the pay-off may be a slew of bad reviews

Korean director Song Il-gon goes for all-out melodrama in his soap operatic "Always."

Song Il-gon’s Always is a seriously sentimental movie. The intent here is not to avoid the clichés of sentimentality but to embrace them boldly. This is one of the few contemporary movies D.W. Griffith could easily embrace: He would recognize every element from the orphan and the blind girl to her puppy and the sick turtle.

While Always made a curious choice as a curtain-raiser for the 16th edition of the Busan International Film Festival, it may have been a smart move as the film reps a chance for local hero So Ji-sub to run the gamut of emotions if not from A to Z certainly to mid-alphabet. He thus keeps the talented-as-she-is-pretty Han Hyo-joo from stealing the show. The feel-good factor will get the festival off to a festive start, but reviewers may not be kind so the film will need So’s star power to sell this overripe melodrama in Asian markets.

Han plays a telemarketer growing blind at an alarming rate, but her impairment does present the opportunity for a pretty decent “meet cute”: She slides into a parking garage attendant’s booth, assuming the occupant to be the old man usually there. Instead, well into her effusive greeting, she discovers a much younger though sullen occupant. This is So’s character, an ex-boxer whose past has rendered him non-communicative.

Despite the new occupant, the girl stays to “watch” a soap opera on a small TV set, asking the attendant questions about the heroine’s clothing and shoes. A few more nights of such viewings draw the reclusive man out of his shell.

When she asks what he looks like, he reluctantly concedes, “People say I look manly.” When she asks about his past, the night — which happens to be their first date — goes badly but at her door he reluctantly concedes to have been “a really bad boy.”

A rather implausible event in both their pasts connected them long before, but this is one of the movie’s twists that urge on a narration that threatens to stall as Song sends them off to frolic in fields and the boxer to buy his girl a puppy. (To be fair, it’s a practical gift as he intends the puppy to become her seeing-eye dog.)

Now the melodrama comes hot and heavy. She needs an immediate eye operation if she will ever see again. The only way he can raise the dough is through mortal combat in an illegal Bangkok fight club. An old adversary, criminal thugs, a fight to the death followed by a brutal mugging rush the story to a second-act climax that gives way to a languid and syrupy “two years later” third act.

Signaling his every intention to revel in conventions he avoided in the past, Song Il-gon, who co-wrote the script with No Hong-jin, cues the strings for one scene and lays in a tinkling piano over another. Once an auteurist trained at the National Academy of Film in Loz, Poland, Song saw his films hit the festival circuit but get shunned in commercial houses. For this outing, he throws down a gauntlet to audiences. His craft is undeniable. He invests every filmmaking and emotional trick he can in the relentless clichés. And his two actors do achieve a potent chemistry in their scenes together (which comprise over two-thirds of the movie).

The director means for you to gasp at the audacity of the dramatic coincidences and clichés. Call this the Revenge of the Auteurist. You see, he seems to say, I can make a thoroughly commercial movie and even give it some heart. An artificial heart, to be sure, but you can’t have everything.

So Ji-sub delivers an assured low-key, natural performance without a single wink at the audience. The story logically allows him to show off his pectorals, athleticism and thespian skills. Han Hyo-joo is sweetness personified, a young woman who won’t allow a handicap dampen her vivaciousness.

But there is no impetus, either with the characters or their behavior, to get beneath the glossy surface. The film refuses to look at anything that triggers the heightened emotions on shameless display. There is no deep investigation into cultural mores, social themes or ironies the filmmaker could easily have explored

Rather the film is stitched together from old (very old) movies while its lyrical visual style comes from TV commercials. You can imagine the director brushing aside the criticism he knows he will attract. There are not clichés, he might say, but timeless themes.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival

Production company: HB Entertainment in association with 51k

Cast: So Ji-sub, Han Hyo-joo

Director: Song Il-gon

Screenwriters: No Hong-jin, Song Il-gon

Producer: Moon Bomi

Director of photography: Hong Kyung-pyo

Production designer: Kim Hyun-ok

Music: Bang Jun-suk

Costume designer: Ki Kyang-mi

Editor: Nam Na-young

Sales: Showbox/Mediaplex Inc.

No rating, 106 minutes