“Boys don’t Cry” (a.k.a. “Once Upon a Time in Seoul”) was directed by Bae Hyung Joon, who previously helmed the romantic comedy “Too Beautiful to Lie”. For his follow up feature he changes direction entirely, with a tough slice of historic character drama that mixes issues of friendship and brotherhood with the cruel realities of post-war life. The film boasts two up and coming young male leads in the form of the television idols Lee Wan (best known for his roles in “Stairway to Heaven” and “Veronika Decides to Die”) and Song Chang Ui (from “The Scale of Providence”), here making their screen debuts.
The film is set in Seoul in 1953, during the harsh times that followed the end of the Korean War. The plot follows the rough and ready Jong Du (Lee Wan) and the more ambitious and intelligent Tae Ho (Song Chang Ui) who meet at a work camp and decide to try and make their fortune by stealing US army goods to sell on the black market. This turns out to be more complicated than they had hoped as they find the streets controlled by rival gangs. Although they manage to get by and keep a low profile, they attract the attention of a bunch of young orphans, including the tomboyish Soo Nam (Park Grina, recently in “Ba:Bo”) and reluctantly take the under their wing. Unfortunately, gang war breaks out in the market, and Jong Du and Tae Ho find themselves locked into a bitter struggle for survival that pushes their friendship to breaking point.
Although its central premise is familiar, “Boys don’t Cry” is a well told and engaging story, with sympathetic protagonists and believable character development. The plot does offer a few twists on the usual formula of two friends growing up in tough times, and director Bae thankfully avoids the usual cliché of making one bad and the other good. Similarly, though the film does focus on the pretty basic themes of friendship and loyalty, it does so in a relatively fresh manner.
As such the film is morally quite a complex affair, and interestingly although Soo Nam does inevitably come between the two, she is not the impetus for their falling out. Rather, it is money which causes a rift, and the question as to whether or not they will eventually take care of their orphan charges or simply decide to cut and run once all the goods are sold. The film builds its relationships slowly and carefully, and as a result it does pack a fair emotional punch during the fittingly downbeat finale. Both Lee Wan and Song Chang Ui deliver worthy performances which add a welcome sense of depth to their characters and make it easy for the viewer to root for them.
Of course, the film is not all character drama and angst, and Bae throws in a good amount of action, mainly in the form of violent street brawls. The pace really picks up during the latter stages, and there are several impressively choreographed and brutal fight scenes which help to make for rousing entertainment. Bae never shies away from the grim reality of life during this difficult period, and as well as bloody the film is gritty and frequently quite rough, with poor Soo Nam having a bad time of it in particular. The production values reflect this convincingly, and the film has a suitably run down and decrepit look, with a good eye for detail, right down to the characters’ torn clothes and dirty faces. This helps to create the kind of believable atmosphere of desperation needed to drive the drama and to draw viewers into the story. Bae’s direction is low-key and avoids too much in the way of distracting stylish excess, giving an intimate rather than epic feel and keeping the film pleasingly short and tightly shot.
As a result, “Boys don’t Cry” is both entertaining and economic, focusing only on the most important elements of the genre and eschewing needless subplots or melodramatic bloating. With interesting characters, winning performances and enough action to inject a little excitement into the proceedings, it offers a worthwhile retread of a familiar path that serves well to remind viewers why they enjoyed the genre in the first place.
Bae Hyeong-joon (director) / Han Ji-hoon (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Wan, Song Chang-ee, Park Grina, Lee Ki-young, Ahn Kil-kang, Jeong Kyung-ho, Park Yeong-seo, Kang I-seok, Cha Seung-yeol, Han Seong-jin