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“Lovers Vanished” is a Korean independent which bravely takes on the controversial subject of aids by following the seemingly doomed relationship between a criminal on the run and a young woman with a tragic past. The film is writer director Cho Chang Ho’s follow up to his troubled teen drama “The Peter Pan Formula”, and stars popular actor Kim Nam Gil (who recently found fame through the historical drama series “Queen Seon Duk”) and the up and coming Hwang Woo Seul Hye (“Scandal Makers”) as the two leads.
The film begins as Mia (Hwang Woo Seul Hye) catches her magician beau Sang Byun (Jung Yun Min, also in “Lovers of Six Years”) in bed with his male lover, who she accidentally shoots. The HIV positive Sang Byun takes the blame for the crime, and while in jail meets Su In (Kim Nam Gil), a young man who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife, a crime he claims not to have committed. Believing that it will see him being freed on compassionate grounds, Su In injects himself with Sang Byun’s blood, only to discover that it merely results in his being transferred to the prison hospital. Desperate to track down his wife’s lover and real murderer, he escapes and finds the man (Kim Jae Rok), only to witness him commit suicide. With nothing else to live for, Su In heads to a remote café on Jeju Island as per Sang Byun’s instructions, where he meets Mia. The two slowly develop feelings for each other, though with the police closing in on Su In it seems unlikely that they’ll have a real chance at happiness.
As should be obvious from this synopsis, “Lovers Vanished” is not exactly a barrel of laughs, apparently being described by writer director Cho as a kind of Korean “Leaving Las Vegas”. Certainly, the film is one of the more depressing Korean dramas of late, having the feel of a less art house oriented or obtuse Kim Ki Duk effort, with pretty much all of its plot developments and twists serving only to heap on the misery for its protagonists. The film is equal parts character drama and love story, and in this respect Cho achieves a delicate though effective balance. Though to an extent both Su In and Mia are both defined, and more importantly trapped by their pasts and mistakes, the two are both sympathetic and tragic figures, and the viewer does come to hope that they will at least achieve some small measure of happiness. Kim Nam Gil and Hwang Woo Seul Hye turn in believably tortured performances, and their slow burn relationship is all the more moving for its hopeless nature.
The film as a whole has an ominous air, and Cho makes it clear throughout that the couple do not have much time together, with the police closing in on Su In and the grim spectre of sickness constantly in the background. As things progress and other characters get involved, the film becomes increasingly tense, though never in an artificial manner, with little reliance on coincidence or trite melodrama. Interestingly, despite its subject manner and weighty moral themes, the film is not an illness of the week type tearjerker, or indeed an aids drama that explores societal attitudes towards the disease. Rather, Cho treats it as a sad, though unchangeable fact of life, or perhaps death, for the characters, and plays it mainly as a means of underlining yet again that the two really don’t have a great deal working in their favour. Thankfully, this does not mean that the film piles on the platitudes or cringe worthy pleas for its audience to enjoy their lives or to cherish their time with their loved ones, and it remains engaging in a downbeat fashion through to the end.
The comparison with “Leaving Las Vegas” is certainly justified, as “Lovers Vanished” is a film which manages to take a devastatingly bleak scenario and weave it into something moving and painfully human. Anchored by sterling performances from the two leads, an intelligent script and Cho’s appropriately low key direction, though far from cheerful or enjoyable in the traditional sense of the word, the film is wholly gripping and stays with the viewer long after its fittingly uncompromising conclusion.
Chang-ho Cho (director) / Chang-ho Cho (screenplay)
CAST: Nam-gil Kim … Soo-in
Woo-seul-hye Hwang … Mi-ah
Yun-min Jeong … Sang-byeong
Yoon Jae-Moon … Mr. Jo
Hye-seok Oh … Jin-ho