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“Highway Star”, the debut film from directors Kim Hyun Soo and Kim Sang Chan, is based around the unlikely subject of trot singing, which for the uninitiated is a much mocked melodramatic Korean folk music tradition enjoyed mainly by the middle-aged. Although this might not seem like a good idea on paper, there has been of late a trend of musically themed films in Korean cinema, and so perhaps trot was one of the few remaining genres to be tackled. Furthermore, the practice itself has been enjoying a resurgence in Korean popular culture, and as such the film can be seen as a timely means of introducing the masses to its flamboyant charms.
The plot follows Dal Ho (Cha Tae Hyun, best known as the lead in the phenomenally successful romantic comedy “My Sassy Girl”), a small town rocker who is one day offered a contract by a Seoul recording studio. Although he jumps at the chance, he soon finds out to his dismay that he has in fact been recruited to train as a trot singer, something which embarrasses him so much that he decides to wear a mask for his first television performance. To the shock of everyone, his gimmicky appearance captures the public imagination and he promptly becomes an overnight star, threatening his relationship with fellow trotter So Yeon (actress Lee So Yeon, also in “Untold Scandal”) and forcing him to think long and hard about his life.
Like the recent “Radio Star”, the film is one of personal growth and self-realisation through music, with Dal Ho gradually changing from an insecure brat who is happy enough to dump his friends at the merest sniff of stardom, to an all-caring, all-sharing confident man — such is the power of trot. Dal Ho makes for a likeable protagonist, and his journey is an entertaining one, even though its outcome is never in any doubt. This is thanks in part to a solid performance by Cha Tae Hyun, who manages to bring a vague emotional depth to a fairly two-dimensional role. It certainly also helps that he can sing, with the film giving him plenty of chances to show off his lung power.
In essence, the plot is very close to that of “200 Pounds Beauty” by also tackling themes of acceptance and identity, though here it is through less drastic means of transformation. The two films are similar in a number of other ways, both basically revolving around frequent musical montages and leading up to a revelation packed climatic concert scene. This is by no means a bad thing, and although “Highway Star” is wholly predictable, never straying from the formula for films of this type, it works well enough due to a character driven approach and having plenty of heart.
Directors Kim and Kim manage to strike a comfortable balance between comedy and drama, and although there are a good number of gags, there is little in the way of slapstick or mugging for the camera. Wisely, though they poke gentle fun at some of the many tacky aspects of trot singing, the directors never go so far as to mock it or to try and devalue its appeal in a way which would have undermined the story. The plot does flounder somewhat due to the fact that Dal Ho’s manager (stony faced actor Lim Chae Moo) is played mainly for laughs, something which leaves a gaping narrative hole usually occupied by some kind of father figure or guiding light, robbing the film of potential substance. The upside to this is that the proceedings are reasonably free from melodrama, and even the inevitable romantic subplot for once functions as more than a mere afterthought as is so often the case.
The film has an appropriately bright and colourful look, filled with the gaudy costumes and slick hairdos which are apparently a prerequisite for trot singers, and though these can be a little painful on the eye at times, they do give the action an authentically flashy feel. Kim and Kim have a good eye for detail, and they bring the film to life through an interesting choice of concert venues which range from seedy lounge clubs to small rural gatherings. Thankfully, there isn’t too much in the way of padding or unnecessary subplots, and although basic, the film moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace and never outstays its welcome.
As such, whilst somewhat lacking in depth, rather like a band playing an overly familiar though well-loved song, “Highway Star” still manages to entertain and satisfy. Viewers should not be put off by the trot theme, as liking or even having heard of this obscure musical genre is by no means required, and the film should be enjoyed by all fans of personal growth tales and underdog success stories.
Hyun-su Kim, Sang-chan Kim (director) / Sang-chan Kim, Seung-yeon Seon, Sun-yong Yun (screenplay)
CAST: Tae-hyun Cha … Bong Dal-ho