Summer Time (2001) Movie Review

Like many South Korean movies made by baby boomers that lived through the democracy movement of the ’70s and ’80s, “Summer Time” owes its core premise to the Kwangju Incident. History informs us that the South Korean city of Kwangju, in 1980, became a major staging point for student protestors demanding true democracy from its succession of military dictators. Back then, South Korea was a democracy in name, but not in practice. (It wasn’t until 1991 that the country’s President was finally elected by the people.) The incident ended badly, with casualties in the 100s (some say thousands), and student protestors forced to scatter across the country or risk being arrested.

The main character in “Summer Time”, Sang-ho, confesses to being only a minor participant in the incident, but he is nevertheless on the run. Seeking shelter in a small town in the countryside, Sang-ho (Su-yeong Ryu) ends up on the second floor of a boarding house. Hiding and biding his time until things cool down enough in the cities for him to return, Sang-ho discovers the married couple living underneath him and their odd relationship, all visible through holes in the floorboards.

Although the husband treats the wife as if she’s a prisoner and padlocks the apartment whenever he leaves for work, the wife doesn’t seem especially resentful of the situation. Being that he’s a young man with raging hormones, Sang-ho easily becomes entranced with the beautiful wife. (The movie never introduces the husband and wife by name; even Sang-ho’s name is not revealed until much later in the film.) Sang-ho becomes so aroused by the couple’s daily couplings that he uses a stroke of luck (the husband loses his padlock key) to sneak into the apartment and make love to the wife. (The wife normally has her back turned during sex.) But even when the wife discovers Sang-ho’s identity, she doesn’t push him away; instead, the two begin a steamy affair.

“Summer Time” is a drama spiced up with heavy doses of eroticism, and its numerous displays of frank sexual encounters between the husband and wife, and the wife and the student, can be seen as a direct result of the Kwangju Incident, 20 years later. The change of power in South Korea, and the opening of more liberal ideals have led to a sort of sexual revolution for the former hermit kingdom. Lately South Korea has produced some very erotic works, and sometimes one gets the feeling the suddenly abundant display of celluloid sex is more about the newfound allowance of such a product rather than a need for them.

What “Summer Time” does, and does well, is use the married couple as a microcosm of what’s taking place in South Korean history in 1980. The husband (Cheol-ho Choi) is an ex-cop (re: the establishment), fired because of his involvement in police corruption. The wife (re: the citizen) was rape by the husband as a young girl, and for the sake of status quo (or perhaps because she just doesn’t know any better) has ended up as his wife and prisoner. The movie doesn’t seem especially interested in talking about how the couple ended up as they are now, but rather where they’re going.

Director Jae-ho Park and writer Jeong-hak Lee have crafted the husband and wife characters in order to create parallels with the political unrest in the country. Through the wife’s relationship with the student, the wife begins to discover an awakening; her formerly docile existence becomes a prison whereas before it was simply life and she knew no better way to live. The film’s ending, when the husband discovers the adultery, drives home the point the filmmakers were going for. Yes, the whole thing is done rather obviously and perhaps without enough subtlety, but maybe that’s the only way to do it so the audience won’t be confused as to the point of the film.

Lead Ji-hyeon Kim offers the movie its smothering sexuality and heart. The actress is gloriously beautiful, naked or otherwise, and although director Jae-ho Park’s insistence on shooting close ups of various parts of her body left me a little uncomfortable, Kim still shines in every scene she’s in. As the student, Su-yeong Ryu is too stilted of an actor (although he’s still young), and certainly holds no candle to the older Cheol-ho Choi, who plays the self-loathing husband whose life has crumbled because of his own greed and corruption.

I would never dream of comparing “Summer Time” to the terrific “Peppermint Candy”, even though both movies deal with the same subject — that is, the aftermath of the Kwangju incident. The explicit sex in “Summer Time” may turn some people off, and perhaps there is too much of it for its own good. The point could have been made without so much skin, but who am I to complain when the skin is as beautiful as Ji-hyeon Kim’s.

Jae-ho Park (director) / Jeong-hak Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-hyeon Kim …. Hie-ran
Cheol-ho Choi …. Tae-yeol
Su-yeong Ryu …. Sang-ho
Wok-suk Song …. Ki-wok
Jeong-yun Bae …. Young-mi

Buy Summer Time on DVD