“Summer Whispers” marks the debut of first time writer director Kim Eun Joo, and offers a pleasingly understated take on the usual Korean romance. The title is certainly appropriate and evocative, as the film has a bright, though almost ethereal feel, dealing not only with love, but also with life and loss in general. Benefitting from fine performances from its young leads and a winning sense of maturity, it makes for charmingly laid back viewing, enough so to stand out from its brasher peers.
Most of the film takes place in the house of the elderly Professor Noh (Choi Jung Won), who heads off to America to visit his son. In his absence, he hires a poetry writing grad student called Young Jo (Lee Young Eun, recently in “Going by the Book”) to organise his vast library of books, which he plans to give to charity after he retires. Young Jo works in the mornings, while in the afternoons Yun Soo (Ha Suk Jin), a young man who works in the local flower shop, stops by to water the professor’s orchids. The two keep on just missing each other, though slowly build a relationship through the notes they leave for each other, many of which revolve around their different feelings for the professor’s cat. At the same time, Young Jo comes across a collection of old letters from the professor to his wife, which leads to a series of revelations that concern all of their lives.
Despite its simple premise, “Summer Whispers” actually has a fairly complex narrative, revolving around numerous flashbacks that follow Young Jo and Yun Soo in their youth and slowly reveal their relationships with the professor. Their own romance is wonderfully underplayed, and Kim eschews almost all of the usual clichés of the genre, allowing it to build slowly, cautiously, and indeed believably. Both of the leads turn in impressive performances, bringing sympathy to their roles without too much cheap sentiment. The two don’t actually meet until quite far on in the proceedings, and on that score the film somewhat resembles “Il Mare”, though in arguably more grounded fashion. With a number of subplots, and with all of the characters having sadness of one kind or another in their past, the film has surprising emotional depth, and is moving in a humanistic, rather than melodramatic manner. As such, it makes for engaging viewing throughout, and has an almost philosophical feel, with moments of real insight and poetry.
Kim’s naturalistic direction fits the material perfectly, being light and visually pleasing. The house makes for a great setting, with all the green plants and wooden floors giving a sense of peace and vibrancy. The excellent use of light helps to give an almost tangible feeling of summer and of days spent quietly in the sunshine. Wisely, Kim avoids too much in the way of forced cuteness or any such artificial touches, though some of the scenes involving the professor’s cat do break the ambient mood somewhat. Still, these don’t detract too much, and the film moves along at a good pace despite its languid airs, with a few welcome injections of subtle humour to keep things from ever getting too dry.
“Summer Whispers” is certainly a far more mature romantic drama than might have been expected, thanks to some skilful storytelling and restrained handling. All the more touching and affecting for its laid back approach, it puts most other Korean romances to shame by offering something genuinely different and by proving that genre directors really don’t need to stick to the usual formula to produce something moving.
Kim Eun-joo (director) / Kim Eun-joo (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Young-eun, Ha Seok-jin, Choi Jong-won, Woo Sang-min, Jeong Woo, Choi Yoon-jeong