'Gyeongju': Locarno Review

Gyeongju Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

Gyeongju Still - H 2014

Delightful, delicate drama about fleeting meetings weighed down by past pains.

Korean-Chinese helmer Zhang Lu evokes love, laughter and loss in a tomb-strewn town

While literally meaning "celebratory county," Gyeongju — which was the capital of the powerful Silla Kingdom a millennium ago — is now also famous for the tombs and tumuli visibly strewn across town. Set in the city, Zhang Lu's film is a delicate showcase of this very paradoxical mix of revelry and remembrance. Revolving around a Beijing-based Korean academic's two-day, one-night visit to the city, the Korean-Chinese director's seventh feature — and his first in five years — is a breezy, bittersweet drama in which humor and bubbling affections are nearly always subtly moderated by bereavement and faithfulness toward the beloved departed.

Having long established himself with films heaving with reflections on social trauma — his previous films have invariably centered around the travails of the disfranchised, dislocated and disregarded in alienating big cities and angst-ridden borderlands — Zhang has produced what is easily the most lighthearted project in his career. Far from veering deep into rom-com territory, however, Gyeongju trades in subtle sentiments and symbolism — with quite a few nods to Zhang's favorite theme of identity politics. While not exactly setting box offices afire at home — it generated just over 62,000 admissions during its monthlong run in June-July — the film's fortunes probably lie abroad, with its international premiere at Locarno probably heralding a run in festivals and Korean-themed programs.

Zhang's knack for comedy reared its head two years ago, when he co-wrote Korean cinema grandee Kim Dong-ho's directorial debut, Jury, a short film about the intrigue and infighting within a panel of festival-award adjudicators. Having since delivered one of his most overtly political pieces in the migrant-worker documentary Scenery (an entry at Busan last year), Zhang has now bolted toward the other end of the spectrum with a premise resembling Richard Linklater's Before... films. Jaded university lecturer Choi Hyeon (Park Hae-il, The Host) wanders around Gyeongju, meets the cute tea-room owner Gong Yun-hee (Shin Min-ah, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho), and then whiles the day (and evening) away with her at a restaurant, a karaoke bar, a burial mound, and finally her apartment.

But Choi and Gong are not romantic youngsters trying — as Linklater's two protagonists always are, throughout the three films — desperately to gauge the meaning of life. For the Korean duo in Gyeongju, death is a more immediate topic. Choi is back in Korea to attend the funeral of an estranged best friend, and his trip to Gyeongju is driven by the wish to find an "obscene" painting he remembers seeing while drinking with his buddy for the last time. Meanwhile, Gong — who amazed the Sinophile for being a descendant of the long-dead Confucius — is still inwardly grieving for a loved one, a scar which keeps her at a distance from both Choi as well as her police-officer suitor (Kim Tae-hoon).

Beyond this skeletal framework, Gyeongju reflects Zhang's long-running interest in examining how individual hopes and fears for better lives are affected by external forces, especially that of discrimination against the physically and politically alien (see also: 2007's Desert Dream or 2008's Iri). Of course, Gyeongju is gentler in its reflections on this topic, and the mere representation of this once glorious and now sleepy city — courtesy of evocative camerawork from Cho Young-jik — is indicative of the softer approach here.

Perhaps citing some of his own mixed-heritage experiences in life, Zhang depicts how Choi's internationalist existence — he is married to a Chinese woman, smokes Chinese cigarettes, counts the Japanese acquired-taste natto (sticky soya beans) as his favorite food, and is markedly lacking in patriotic rigor — are derided by both old flames and new acquaintances. He is also put to shame when he struggles to respond to a Japanese tourist offering her apologies about the suffering the Japanese inflicted on Korea during World War II; as he spews nonsense about his love of natto, Gong intervenes with a concise yet graceful answer about forgiveness but not forgetfulness toward past wrongs.

While their photogenic looks are posed as an object of a running joke throughout the film, Park and Shin — making her first foray into non-mainstream cinematic territory —  provide sufficiently restrained turns in generating the panged-up frustrations and fears of their characters. The array of supporting characters (among them also Baek Hyeon-jin as the crass small-town lecturer, and The Berlin File director Ryoo Seung-wan as a meek florist) offer some sharp comic relief and also a calibrated backdrop for the mourning melancholy of the leads. And the big reveal at the end — about the painting, and the object of Choi's real (and perhaps much-suppressed) affections — provides a moving finale to what is a nuanced drama.

Production companies: Lu Film, Invent Stone Corp
Cast: Park Hae-il, Shin Min-ah, Yoon Jin-seo, Kim Tae-hoon
Director: Zhang Lu
Screenwriter: Zhang Lu
Producers: Choi Ji-hyeon, Yoo Byung-ok
Executive producer: Na Kyeong-chan
Director of photography: Cho Young-jik
Production designer: Kim Cho-hea
Costume designer: Lim Chan-young
Editor: Kim Hyung-bo
Music: Kang Min-kook
Sales: M-Line Distribution

In Korean and Mandarin

No rating, 145 minutes