“My Paparotti”, its title a deliberate mispronunciation of famous tenor Pavarotti, is unsurprisingly a film about singing, the twist being that the budding opera star of the story is also a young gangster. Directed by Yoon Jong Chan, his first film in four years after his mental institution set romance “I am Happy”, the script was based loosely on the true story of Kim Ho Joong, a troubled youngster who found fame on the Korean television show “Star King” in 2009. Despite a familiar sounding plot, the film was a number one box office hit, boosted by the big name lead pairing of acclaimed veteran Han Suk Kyu (“Berlin File”) and Lee Je Hoon (“Architecture 101”), currently one of the country’s most hotly tipped young stars.
Han plays Sang Jin, a bad-tempered music teacher at the Arts High School in the small town of Gimcheon, and a former opera singer whose career was cut short by a throat tumour. Sang Jin is less than pleased when the principle (Oh Dal Su, “Oldboy”) forces him to take on new transfer student Jang Ho (Lee Je Hoon), a thug who’s been kicked out of four other schools. Though the two initially don’t get on, Sang Jin is gradually convinced of Jang Ho’s talent and his desire to sing, and takes him under his wing, pushing him to fulfil his dreams. Unfortunately, much to his new mentor’s frustration, Jang Ho’s after-hours work as a gang enforcer doesn’t make this easy, and it’s soon clear that he’ll have to make a choice about what kind of life he wants to lead.
Plot-wise, “My Paparotti” is a clearly a very standard affair, never deviating much from the time-honoured template for inspirational teacher-student films of its type, from the initial aggression between Sang Jin and Jang Ho, through to their cathartic coming together and triumph. Predictable and formulaic in narrative terms, this really isn’t the kind of film anyone should approach expecting anything new or ground-breaking. However, this isn’t to say that “My Paparotti” is a bad film – far from it. Though Yoon Jong Chan has tackled a variety of genres in the past, including horror with “Sorum” and a historical biopic with “Blue Swallow”, he’s a director who has always shown a solid grasp of the importance of character, and this certainly serves him well here. Both Sang Jin and Jang Ho are fully-realised and believable figures, and this helps hugely, not only to distract from the over-familiarity of the story, but to make it involving emotionally. While their destination is never in doubt, the two men’s journey is an interesting and compelling one, and this makes the film rewarding to watch, at least for viewers who enjoy its type.
The student teacher bond is obviously at the heart of the film, and Yoon makes the most of it by keeping things almost entirely focused on the main plot and on its two protagonists with few needless distractions – Sang Jin’s family barely get a look in, and though there’s a minor stab at fleshing out a couple of Jang Ho’s gang superiors and troubles, these are kept as background concerns. Most importantly, Yoon also manages to get the very best performances from his stars, and both Han Suk Kyu and Lee Je Hoon are on excellent form, putting in likeable and sympathetic turns that really bring their characters to life. There’s a definite chemistry between the two, and this not only makes their earlier sparring and conflicts suitably amusing, but gives a real sense of them coming closer together and of finding in each other a way of righting the wrongs in their own lives. Han Suk Kyu hits all the right notes as the cynical and bitter Sang Jin, at the same time making it clear that he’s a decent man beneath his bluster, and Lee Je Hoon is similarly impressive, Jang Ho emerging as more than a cardboard thug with a heart, and as the kind of guy it’s easy to root for.
All this makes “My Paparotti” a simple, effective and engaging film, and though it never leaves the well-trodden path, there’s a lot here to enjoy. Primarily kept afloat by some solid character writing and excellent lead turns from Han Suk Kyu and Lee Je Hoon, it’s an accomplished and very much above average example of inspirational student teacher drama, and it’s easy to see why it performed so well at the Korean box office.
Jong-chan Yun (director) / Yeong-ah Yoo (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Do-Yeon … English teacher
Suk-kyu Han … Sang-Jin
Cho Jin-Woong … Chang-Soo
So-ra Kang … Sook-Hee
Je-hoon Lee … Jang-Ho
Dal-su Oh … Principle Deok-Saeng