It’s unsurprising that “Radio Star” was one of the more eagerly awaited Korean films of 2006, being director Lee Joon Ik’s follow up to his mega hit “King and the Clown” and marking the reunion of two highly popular actors in Ahn Sung Ki and Park Joong Hoon, who starred together in the likes of “Two Cops” and Lee Myung Se’s “Nowhere to Hide”. Perhaps surprisingly, given all of this star power, the film is actually a fairly low key affair, a character driven tale of friendship and loyalty based around gentle comedy and good old fashioned values rather than anything particularly clever or ambitious.
Whilst such an apparent lack of invention may sound like a disappointment from a director whose last film had such an impact on the Korean film industry, “Radio Star” turns out to be a charming and heart-warming piece of cinema in the best tradition, relying on a well written story, interesting characters and good acting rather than any kind of cynical trickery or flashy techniques to engage viewers.
The film charts the relationship between Choi Gon (Park Joong Hoon), a fading rock star whose 1980s glory days have faded in a haze of drinking and bad behaviour, and his manager Park Min Soo (Ahn Sung Ki), who appears to be the only person on the planet willing to put up with his friend’s surliness. After reaching a new low by assaulting a club owner, Choi is able to escape jail only after Park arranges for him to become a radio disc jockey at a station in a small rural town. Stuck out in the middle of nowhere, it seems that the singer’s career is all but over, a fact which he is all too quick to take out on his long-suffering manager. However, he slowly comes to grips with his new role, and with the help of an enthusiastic local band starts to rebuild his rock n’ roll life.
Although the film is centred upon the relationship between Choi Gon and Park Min Soo, it is the latter who is arguably the more fleshed out of the two characters. Certainly, it is with him that the viewer’s sympathy largely lies, not least as a result of his spending most of the running time being subjected to Choi’s whims and selfishness, and showing a level of dedication which effectively ruins his own personal life. Choi, though less likeable initially at least, does undergo what amounts to a kind of self-realisation rather than transformation through the film, making for some surprisingly touching scenes later on when the sullen and arrogant rocker finally opens up during the last act, revealing himself to be almost a lost child wholly reliant upon his friend.
As such, their friendship is a highly complex one, and through it Lee engages themes not only of friendship and nostalgia, but of sacrifice and loss. In this way, although “Radio Star” is at first glimpse a simple tale, it actually touches on some broad subjects, and does so in a subtly philosophical manner. It goes without saying that the film is frequently sentimental, with many a tug at the heartstrings, though thankfully it is never so in a cheap or obvious manner, with most of its emotional impact coming from quiet moments between the characters.
Although moving, the film is certainly balanced by a basic sense of realism, and Lee manages to avoid things from ever becoming a clich’d ode to small town life, and steers away from any needless romantic subplots. If not exactly light, the mood of “Radio Star” is generally upbeat throughout, thanks to the fact that the film is at times very funny, mainly due to the way in which the amusing and disarmingly witty script is brought to life by the excellent performances of the two stars. The soundtrack also contributes to the positive, life-affirming mood, with a variety of good rock numbers being included.
As with “King and the Clown”, Lee proves himself to be an excellent director who is great with stories which are both intimate and wide-reaching at the same time. Here, aside from managing to expertly capture the relationship between the two protagonists, he brings the film to life by gradually expanding the setting, showing how Choi’s radio broadcasts first reach the small town locals, and then more and more people across the country. The surrounding countryside and eventually the nearby towns and cities are evocatively depicted, giving the film a sense of place which is very Korean, yet unmistakably universal.
“Radio Star” is a warmly human film which should appeal to all viewers with its mixture of wry humour and moving drama. Featuring excellent performances from two of the country’s best actors and highly accomplished direction from a genuine craftsman, it stands as one of the best Korean films of 2006, and hopefully one which will find the recognition it deserves on DVD.
Jun-ik Lee (director) / Seok-Hwan Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn