With DVD box art depicting its characters either staring longingly or howling with misery, “Over the Border” certainly sets expectations for glumness of the highest order. However, the film itself surprises by being a fairly frothy, though pleasingly human melodrama, that uses the Korean divide for soap opera shenanigans rather than the usual psychotic acts of terrorism. Marking the directorial debut of television producer An Pan Seok, the film succeeds mainly through the fact that it aims for romantic drama rather than heavy handed political commentary.
The plot follows Seon Ho (Cha Seung Won, “Blood Rain”), a bumbling but kind French horn player in a North Korean propaganda band, who haltingly falls in love with straight talking museum guide Yeon Hwa (Jo Yi Jin, “The Aggressives”). Unfortunately, just after he asks her to marry him, his family receives news that their communist hero grandfather is not actually dead, but is alive and well in South Korea . Terrified that the government will send them to a concentration camp, the family flees across the border, with Seon Ho promising that he will send for his love as soon as he can. Sadly, things in Seoul don’t turn out well for the family, and they end up struggling to make ends meet. Seon Ho begins a new life of hardship, desperately trying to find a way for his beloved to join him in the South.
Despite its topical scenario, “Over the Border” is a fairly basic melodrama which makes use of well worn genre cliché. The inherently predictable narrative basically revolves around plot points such as separated lovers mistakenly believing that their other half is dead, dashed expectations and tearful reunions, all set to a soundtrack of sappy songs. Thankfully, the lead character themselves engage right from the start, with both Seon Ho and Yeon Hwa being likeable enough, and as a result the over familiarity of the plot is not likely to matter much to fans of the form. Their romance is all the more believable due to the fact that it is initially underplayed, giving the film a sturdy emotional core when the narrative lurches into near-farcical coincidence.
The film actually works very well as a subtle commentary on the Korean divide through its focusing on the human aspects of the situation, and in this way is arguably far more effective than the likes of “Typhoon” and “Shiri”. Director An makes a number of subtle observations about both the differences and similarities between lifestyles of the citizens of the two countries, neither demonising one regime nor the other. There are surprisingly little politics in “Over the Border”, and though there is a fair dose of cynicism, its tragedy is painfully human and without any kind of finger-pointing. Predictably, though fittingly, it offers no easy solutions, and seeks mainly to underline the effects rather than to engage in the kind of nationalist diatribe which might have been expected.
Director An actually manages to work in some bittersweet, gentle humour amongst the angst, from which the film certainly benefits. By depicting the Northern characters’ reactions to life in the Americanised South, he not only provides welcome laughs, but highlights the strange misconceptions which people from both halves have of each other. Some of this is actually quite clever, including a nice parallel drawn between religious preaching in the South and propaganda speeches in the North.
At the end of the day, “Over the Border” is an effective slice of romantic melodrama which is likely to be enjoyed by any fans of “April Snow” or other films depicting pining lovers. As a commentary on the Korean divide, it certainly offers a welcome alternative to the usual high octane action, with its broken hearts and tears being far more believable than bloody betrayals and explosions.
Pan-seok Ahn (director) / Pan-seok Ahn, Yu-jeong Jeong (screenplay)
CAST: Seung-won Cha …. Kim Sun-ho
Yi-jin Jo …. Yeon-hwa
Hye-jin Shim …. Kyung-ju