Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hindsight always 20/20? Hindsight (Blue Salt) at the New York Korean Film Festival, BAM

I might be spoiled by Korean cinema.  Yes maybe just a little.  A consistently jaw-dropping output has led to just over a decade of me fawning, repeatedly watching, and urging others to check out a wide body of work produced within a relatively short period of time.  On one side are major productions from maverick directors (Chan Wook Park, Kim Ji Woon, Joon Bong Ho to name a few) that are always swinging for the fences.  Hit or miss, they tell gigantic weighty stories, push casts to intense performances, and deliver impressive sequences of sensory overload.  On the other end are independents that, in the absence of hefty budgets or star power, create powerful films, where all of the elements come together unified by one singular auteur vision (films like Breathless and Daytime Drinking come quickly to mind).  Then you have movies, a growing number of which are getting exposure in the US and abroad, that fall somewhere in between.  This is very much where I would position the movie Hindsight, at one point known as Blue Salt, the actual translation of the film’s Korean title. The film is a collection of some pretty good ideas, but they ultimately lead to a confused whole, when following up strongly on just one or two of them might’ve made for a much better film. 

            The short version of the story:  Doo-hyeon, a good natured mobster (played by Song Kang Ho) tries to extricate himself from the gangster lifestyle, finding motivation in cooking classes where he meets sassy young firebrand Se-bin (actress Shin Se-Kyung).  Since you can never really leave it all behind, forces are at work to drag Doo-hyeon back into the thick of things, amongst them Se-bin herself, who is begrudgingly spying on her culinary classmate to settle a debt to the mob.  As Doo-hyeon finds himself at the center of tension within the ranks of his criminal organization, a relationship is kindled between himself and Se-bin.  Their connection, already strained by a very heavily played up age difference and the concealment of their true nature from one another, is further complicated by a misunderstanding that makes Doo-hyeon a target for the deadlier than at first imagined Se-bin.  That doesn’t seem so simple after all, does it?  Yet it leaves out a number of plot elements that further distract more than add to the story.

            What’s good is the always fantastic Song Kang Ho, playing a role he seems to be made for: The retired from action tough guy whose hard edge is softened by a truly good nature and a healthy dose of everyman simplicity.  He has also played slightly different riffs on this same characters in numerous other films (Secret Reunion, The Show Must Go On, Memories of Murder).  And herein may lie one of Hindsight’s major battles to hold audience’s attention: It is near impossible to be a Korean movie fan and not know Song Kang Ho from other far superior movies.  There is a feeling throughout Hindsight that his performance is deserving of better material.

            What I also admire is the focus on an unlikely relationship, which despite obstacles forces itself persistently into being.  It is not the most original subject, but it is a moving one.  There are some charming, humorous moments where the pair’s generation gap brings about a smile, like when the two attempt to escape from outside pressures by singing at a karaoke box.
I would’ve liked to see this developed as more of an indie production or maybe even a Japanese or Hong Kong take on the story.  These variables might’ve turned it into a more stylish, mood-driven experience.  Instead there is a decision to play things cutesy way too often, with long desert café talks and print club photo shoots that linger on way too long.  I would’ve far preferred to see the leads talk a lot less and emote a lot more.  OK, Song Kang Ho maybe is a natural talker, but the Se-bin character, who carries herself with a strikingly somber presence, could’ve provided an interesting counterbalance by having fewer and carefully chosen lines of dialogue.

            So what are the distractions?  The jump from one mode to another for one.  I like the idea of films starting out as one thing and morphing into something else; it’s a feat that appears in a lot of Korean films. When it’s done well it is a revelation, as is the case with Secret Reunion (which also features Song Kang-ho as past-his-prime with 1 foot out the door of a violent industry).  When it’s not, however, it becomes a chore to give it your attention.  The cooking class where we first meet the main protagonists is an interesting place with an amusingly hard-assed master chef taking Doo-hyeon and Se-bin through their paces.  While the food theme remains in play, it seems kind of a shame that they leave this scenario behind for more familiar mobster territory.

            There are also numerous one-dimensional characters, something I often associate with gangster movies, including a one-eyed assassin (the other eye is obscured by permanently pressed down hair), who was designed to look almost exactly like Byung-hun Lee in The Good, The Bad, and the Weird.  There is a lot of gun play, which does make for some suspense.  The details, however, eventually drip into a somewhat forgettable soup.  One only knows, as characters are fond of repeating, that "Doo-hyeon must die!"  The reasons why become lost in the muddle.  

            This is a film with some interesting ideas, which again may have played out better if there weren’t such high expectations in play.  Oh Korean cinema, you set the bar so very high.  While it might lead to some overly critical assessments, it also ensures there will be ambitious film makers setting out to outdo, rather than fall short of, those that came before.    

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