It seems to be a very popular time for Korean actors stepping behind the camera, with Ha Jung Woo and Yoo Ji Tae having helmed “Fasten Your Seatbelts” and “Mai Ratima” respectively. Next up is acclaimed veteran star Park Joong Hoon, known for roles in the likes of “Nowhere to Hide”, “Haeundae” and many other hits, who makes his debut with “Top Star”. The film sees Park sticking to what he knows, with a cautionary look behind the scenes of the entertainment industry, following an ambitious young man who tries to work his way up the celebrity ladder. Uhm Tae Woong (“Architecture 101”) headlines, with Kim Min Joon, (“The Concubine”) as his mentor and rival, and support from actress So Yi Hyun (“Heartstrings”) and a number of cameo appearances from Korean stars, including Uhm Jung Hwa and Ahn Sung Ki.
Uhm Tae Woong plays Tae Sik, a lowly talent manager and chauffeur, who harbours dreams of becoming a star himself while ferrying around top actor Won Joon (Kim Min Joon). Fate smiles on Tae Sik when Won Joon gets into a car accident, and in return for taking the blame he’s given a minor part in a television drama series. After a rocky start, his career really takes off, and Tae Sik finds himself competing with Won Joon for the limelight, along with the affections of agent Mi Na (So Yi Hyun). Inevitably, his sudden stardom comes with a price, and the initially nice young man is gradually corrupted by the darker side of fame and fortune.
“Top Star” is a fairly straightforward rise and fall type story, and is considerably more grounded and generic than Shin Yeon Shick and Kim Ki Duk’s similarly themed “Rough Play”. It’s also less obtuse, and thankfully, though it’s predictable, the film still holds the interest, with Park Joong Hoon showing a great eye for detail, his personal knowledge of and feel for the subject matter being evident throughout. It’s also of course tempting to read the film as at least being semi-autobiographical or inspired by actual people and events. The film works well as an expose or satire as a result, and while it never gets terribly dark or shocking, its depiction of Tae Sik’s moral decline is believable and reasonably engrossing. Park wisely keeps things from getting too melodramatic, and though there are a few odd twists towards the end, the script is solid and manages to work in cautionary lesson learning without much in the way of obvious preaching.
The film also benefits from some strong character writing – it’s never particularly easy to keep audiences on board when the central protagonist is essentially unpleasant and prone to cruel behaviour, though Tae Sik remains engaging even when at his worst. The film is at its best when following his changing relationship with Won Joon, and it’s from this that Park wrings a few surprisingly powerful emotional moments, more so than when it comes to the less interesting love triangle with Mi Na. Uhm Tae Woong and Kim Min Joon are both on good form, and the chemistry and dynamic between them adds a definite charge to some of the later plot developments, their gradual role reversal and character revelations making for entertaining drama.
Park proves himself a capable director, and the film makes the most of its production values with a suitably glamorous portrayal of the seductions of the celebrity lifestyle. Visually appealing throughout, the film is quietly stylish without going over the top, his direction showing a steadier hand than might have been expected from a first-timer. Clocking in at less than two hours, the film never feels overlong and moves along at an efficient pace, keeping its focus on Tae Sik and Won Joon rather than heading off on too many subplots or distractions. The film has a certain amount of dramatic tension as a result, and this helps to make up for the overall air of familiarity as it builds towards an ending which most viewers will have seen coming from the start.
“Top Star” obviously isn’t the most ambitious or original of films, though it’s nevertheless a perfectly respectable directorial debut for Park Joong Hoon. There’s plenty here to enjoy, and fans of the leads or anyone who enjoys seeing celebrities flounder should have a pretty good time watching Tae Sik learn his life lessons the hard way.
Joong-Hoon Park (director) / Seok-Hwan Choi, Joong-Hoon Park (screenplay)
CAST: Tae-woong Eom … Tae-shik
Min-jun Kim … Won-jun
Yi-hyeon So … Mi-na
Jin-geun Kim … Seong-cheol