Art Museum by the Zoo (1998) Movie Review

Jeong-hyang Lee’s “Art Museum by the Zoo” is not a very original movie. Let’s get that out of the way first, shall we? You’ve seen the exact same formula being played out in countless Hollywood romantic comedies. The only thing that makes “Museum” stand out from its army of assembly-line colleagues (and make no mistake, just because this is a South Korean production doesn’t make the generic story any less predictable or familiar), is the performances of its two leads.

“Art Museum by the Zoo” opens with Chul-su (Sung-jae Lee) coming home from the Army to surprise his girlfriend, Da-hye (Seon-mi Song), but it’s Chul-su who is surprised when he learns Da-hye has not only moved out of the apartment they share together, but has dumped him and is engaged to marry one of his friends! Stuck with nowhere to go, Chul-su bunks with Chun-hee (Eun-ha Shim), the young woman who has taken over the apartment.

Why does Chun-hee let Chul-su stay? Well, for one he’s already paid her month’s rent when he thought Da-hye stilled live there; and two, Chun-hee doesn’t have a single mean bone in her body and hence can’t bring herself to kick the heartbroken man out to the curb without any place to go. The two become reluctantly roommates, eventually start writing a movie script together using their real-life experiences as inspiration, and before long Chul-su is developing feelings for Chun-hee and that’s when things start to get really complicated.

There is nothing in this South Korean production that you haven’t seen before in any of Freddie Prinze Jr.’s movies. The plot is very simple — boy lives with girl, boy doesn’t like girl at first, boy ends up falling for girl — and the movie is very limited in scope. The only real reason to watch the movie is actress Eun-ha Shim (“Tell me Something”), whose character is so endearing and likeable that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. We root for her when she pursues In-Gong (Sung-kee Ahn), a Senatorial Aide who doesn’t know she exists; and when her hope is dashed, our hearts break right alongside hers.

With an actress like Eun-ha Shim, whose natural winning qualities are truly irresistible, it’s up to Sung-jae Lee (“Kick the Moon”) as the other half of the pair to meet or at least come close to Shim’s likeability. Sung-jae isn’t always successful and sometimes his Chul-su comes across as too abrasive toward the meek Chun-hee. Then again, I suppose his transformation from scorn to adoration of her (lack of) qualities is what makes the movie what it is.

Jeong-hyang Lee (“The Way Home”) directs the film with a patient hand. The camera doesn’t always linger on stationary long shots like a lot of Korean directors are prone to do, and Lee always knows when to give us lingering shots of a thoughtful Chun-hee whimsically daydreaming. Besides the predictable story, another fault I have with the film is that in-between Chun-hee and Chul-su’s growing mutual attraction, Lee intercuts with fantasy sequences where a fictional In-Gong and Da-hye interacts at and around the museum of the title. These brief interludes add a dreamy quality to the film, but they also unnecessarily weighs down the movie’s pacing. Lee might have done better to trim most of the fantasy sequences and concentrate on the real world instead.

“Art Museum by the Zoo” is not an original movie by any stretch of the imagination, and its story and plotting owes more to the thousands of generic Hollywood movies than anything South Korean. And yet, there’s very little not to like about this movie, and a lot to like about the performances of its two leads, especially the delightfully lazy Chun-hee as played by Eun-ha Shim.

Jeong-hyang Lee (director)
CAST: Eun-ha Shim …. Chun-Hi
Sung-jae Lee …. Chul-su
Sung-kee Ahn …. In-Gong
Seon-mi Song …. Da-Hye

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