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Popular and critically lauded Korean actor Ha Jung Woo, noted for recent roles in the likes of “The Terror Live”, “Berlin File” and “The Yellow Sea”, makes his screenwriting and directorial debut with “Fasten Your Seatbelt”. Whereas fellow thespian Yoo Ji Tae recently went for heavy social conscience drama with his first time behind the cameras with “Mai Ratima”, Ha takes another route entirely, his film being a comedy revolving around an ensemble cast of wacky characters and set almost entirely on a possibly doomed aircraft.
The cast is headed by Jung Kyung Ho (“Running Turtle”) as a Korean Wave Hallyu actor Ma Jun Gyu, famed for his role in the sweary blockbuster “Mr Profanity”. Plagued by scandals in his personal life, Ma is taking a flight back to Seoul, which he finds himself sharing with an eclectic bunch of fellow passengers, including a flight attendant who happens to be a former squeeze, a sneaky paparazzo (Choi Gyu Hwan), a vegetarian monk (Kim Byung Ok, “Cold Eyes”) and others, all of whom seem hell-bent on making his journey as awkward as possible. Midway through the short flight, the plane runs into typhoon-related weather troubles, and with the captain proving less than useful, it starts to look like a safe landing might not be in the cards.
Though its premise might sound suspiciously similar to Pedro Almodóvar’s recent “I’m So Excited”, with “Fasten Your Seatbelt” Ha Jung Woo is clearly aiming for basic laughs rather than social satire, the film being a fairly straightforward comedy. Apparently based on Ha’s own experiences of in-flight turbulence terror with actor and pal Ryoo Seung Bum, the film is a brisk and bouncy affair, and what it might lack in originality or ambition, it generally makes up for in efficiency and amiability. Ha does a perfectly competent job both as writer and director, and for the most part the film hits its modest targets, with some solid comic set pieces and gags throughout. The film plays out primarily from Ma Jun Gyu’s perspective, with most of the jokes coming at his expense as things escalate, and it’s his gradual falling apart rather than any real threat of the plane crashing that adds a little tension and spice to the proceedings. Clocking in at just 90 minutes, the film moves along at a fast pace, and Ha shows a good sense of pacing, avoiding too many clichés or needless subplots.
It’s the cast who give the material a boost, with Ha reportedly having spent a fair amount of time working through the script with them before shooting to build up their roles and idiosyncrasies. This definitely pays off, and the amusing chemistry between the stars gives somewhat of a spark to their various relationships and daft squabbling. Despite the fact that his character initially comes across as a vain and unlikeable fool, Jung Kyung Ho does well in the lead, and the viewer slowly warms to the panicky Ma, at least to the point of enjoying seeing him squirm and sweat. The rest of the cast are similarly on fun form, and Ha wisely avoids getting things caught up in the kind of melodrama which often slows down Korean comedies, the vaguely romantic bonding between Ma and cute Japanese flight attendant (Ko Sung Hee, “An Ethics Lesson”) thankfully taking a backseat to the broader humour.
Though nothing terribly remarkable, “Fasten Your Seatbelt” is very watchable and entertaining in its own unassuming way, and it’s a decent way of painlessly passing an hour and a half. It’s understandable enough that Ha Jung Woo would perhaps choose something less high-reaching like this for his debut, and the signs are certainly there that he should be more than capable of stretching his wings a little next time around.
Jung-woo Ha (director) / Jung-woo Ha (screenplay)
CAST: Kyoo-Hwan Choi
Kyung Ho Jung