“M” is the latest effort from critically acclaimed Korean director Lee Myung Se, who has won praise both at home and abroad for his highly stylised works that tend to overflow with cinematic flair. With this, his eighth film he seems to be in reflective mood, combing the themes of bittersweet love and loss seen in his earlier works such as “First Love” and “My Love, My Bride” with the flashy, dynamic techniques used to bring the more recent “Nowhere to Hide” and “Duelist” to life. As might be expected, the result is a film which though on the surface may appear to be the simple tale of a man delving into the memories of his first love, actually works, impresses, and indeed baffles on a number of different levels.
The film takes a while to settle into a plot, basically following a frustrated mystery writer called Han Min Woo (played by Kang Dong Won, who has frequently featured as the director’s leading man, and has also starred in the likes of “Voice of a Murderer”) who is trying and failing to complete his first novel. Part of the problem is that he doesn’t feel right with his beautiful fiancée Eun Hye (actress Kong Hyo Jin, also in “Happiness”), despite the fact that she is both attentive and supportive.
The viewer is also introduced to Mimi (Lee Yeon Hee, “A Millionaire’s First Love”), a young girl who is following Min Woo around the streets, musing upon her love for him although they don’t actually seem to know each other, and who is herself being pursued by a sinister dark figure. One night, growing increasingly paranoid, Min Woo ducks into a bar on a shadowy lane and the two finally meet. The night passes like a dream, though the next morning Min Woo can’t seem to remember exactly what happened or indeed whether Mimi was real. A gathering with old friends at a wedding seems to suggest that she may be a figure from his past, and he begins to delve into his own memories in search of her identity.
“M” is certainly difficult to categorise, being part detective story, part supernatural mystery, and part nostalgic romance. Ultimately though, it is perhaps best viewed simply as the latest chapter in director Lee Myung Se’s ongoing passionate love affair with the cinematic form. Certainly, he makes the most of his vast library of flashy tricks from his previous films, throwing in slow motion, speeded up film, odd fades and edits, still shots – and pretty much every other kind of technique imaginable. The film boasts gorgeous colours and a skilful use of light and shadow, giving it a unique neo-noir look, mixing old 1930s Hollywood motifs with modern smoke and neon. As a result the film is a truly breathtaking visual tour de force, which keeps the eyes glued to the screen throughout the running time.
This is not to suggest that “M” is an example of style over substance, as there is a great deal going on beneath its glossy surface. Though the characters are a little vague, the film still has a surprisingly potent emotional impact, mainly due to a pair of likeable, expressive performances from Kang Dong Won and Lee Yeon Hee. Beyond the love story, the film is a searching exploration of memory from a decidedly cinematic perspective, treating the past as broken reels of film and fading photographs. From this internal journey, the film seems to be about the director’s own relationship with the creative process itself, and as such feels like a deeply personal, intimate statement.
To an extent this is a film that relies upon individual interpretation, and undoubtedly it may alienate some viewers, especially those looking for coherent plotting or spoon-fed answers and character motivations. Indeed, some may be left as perplexed as poor Min Woo, thanks to a slew of cryptic dialogue and the fact that the film is frequently subject to sudden bouts of randomness, feeling at time almost like a more cheerful version of one of David Lynch’s head-scratching works, complete with odd moments of slapstick. However, the film is arguably designed as a piece of visual poetry and as such makes all the sense that it needs to. Certainly, this is a case where some things are all the more powerful for not being spelled out in bold caps. Thankfully, the fact that the film is so obsessively cinematic and hopelessly romantic means that it is strangely unpretentious, and for all its ponderousness is never inaccessible or obtuse.
“M” in this case is an apt title, potentially standing for a number of key themes in the film such as memory, mystery, mirrors, muse, and ultimately, masterpiece. Although this may perhaps not hold true for those who have been less than impressed with the director’s excesses of style in the past, for devotees it stands as his best work to date, and an exquisitely moving experience.
Myung-se Lee (director) / Myung-se Lee, Hae-kyung Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-won Kang, Hyo-jin Kong, Yeon-hee Lee