Respected Korean indie director Song Il Gon, praised for the likes of “Magicians”, “Flower Island” and the superb psychological mystery “Spider Forest”, tries his hand at something a little more commercially friendly with the melodrama “Always”. As well as an intriguing choice of helmer, the film has an interesting lead pairing in popular television actor So Ji Sub, who recently impressed in Jang Hoon’s “Rough Cut”, and fellow TV star actress Han Hyo Ju, of “Dong Yi” and “Brilliant Legacy” fame. Although chosen as the opening film of the 2011 Busan International Festival, the film was one of several blockbusters last year which somewhat underperformed at the box office, perhaps unfairly, as it does see Song trying to do something slightly different with the form.
So Ji Sub plays Chul Min, a former boxer who has broken away from the murky world of debt collection and now lives a quiet life working as a parking lot attendant. While at work one night he meets Jung Hwa (Han Hyo Ju), a visually impaired young woman who mistakes him for the former guard and sits down to watch K-dramas on television with him. The two instantly get on well together, and despite their various emotional difficulties hesitantly begin a relationship. However, the path of love does not run smoothly, with various obstacles in their way, and when Chul Min is forced to return to fighting to make money, it seems as though their happiness might be doomed.
Although “Always” quite obviously sticks to the tried and tested Korean weepy melodrama formula, it does offer up a few tweaks and improvements that make it far more palatable than the average angst ridden tear-fest. Song Il Gon’s approach is certainly genre savvy, working within the form rather than attempting to deconstruct it and risk alienating fans, seeming to aim for a viewing experience which is both emotional and grounded. To this end, he avoids patronising through the usual kind of false tension as to whether the central couple will get together, with Chul Min and Jung Hwa clearly liking each other from their first meeting. With the focus instead being on the real life problems that they face in trying to share their lives with each other and turn their attraction into something lasting, the film is somewhat more believable, and as a result, more affecting.
On this score, the film does a good job of exploring these difficulties, in particular the fact that despite her handicap, Jung Hwa does not want to be helped and pitied, with it being clear from early on that Chul Min’s role as masculine protector not necessarily what is best for her. The two are both interesting and vulnerable characters, and though not terribly different from the usual Korean melodrama protagonists, do have a bit more depth than usual. So Ji Sub does particularly well as Chul Min, moving beyond what seems like a typical stoic tough guy role, showing a convincing sense of regret and inner turmoil, and not being afraid to cry when the need arises. Han Hyo Ju is similarly impressive, and though she does get a touch shrieky and is occasionally prone to foolish ditziness, the film gives her a reasonable amount of back story. The viewer comes to care for and like the two of them, and since they genuinely seem to be a good couple, the film holds the interest as to their fate, and does have a fair emotional punch towards the end – more so since Song avoids ever simply wallowing in sadness or putting the plot on hold for extended periods of glumness.
The film also gets a lift from Song’s solid direction, with some gorgeous visuals, and a quiet air of nostalgia. The film moves at a good pace throughout, with a third act that packs in a surprisingly violent and bloody bout of cage fighting, recalling the director’s “Rough Cut”, which again helps to differentiate it from the average melodrama. Whilst the plot itself goes a bit too far towards the end in terms of coincidence, tying everything together a bit too neatly, it rallies enough to finish strongly, with a conclusion that is quite different to most films of the type, though in a very rewarding way.
“Always” is definitely one of the better and more accessible Korean romantic/tragic dramas of late, and again shows Song Il Gon to be one of the country’s most talented and interesting directors. Though perhaps not quite different enough to appeal beyond the limitations of the genre, it’s nevertheless a strong effort, and should be enjoyed by fans of the form or the stars.
Il-gon Song (director) / Il-gon Song (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-Sub So