The Housemaid (2010) 하녀

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Im Sang-soo
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Ahn Seo-hyeon, Park Ji-young
Theme: Family/Aging, Romance/Erotica

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.7/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50%

Film Festivals:
2010 Cannes Film Festival: In Competition
2010 Toronto International Film Festival
2010 Fantastic Fest
2010 Pusan International Film Festival
2010 Sitges Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Philadelphia Film Festival
2010 The London-Korean Film Festival

Awards:
2010 Daejong Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Critics Choice Awards: Best Music
2010 Korean Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Blue Dragon Film Awars: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong) / Best Art Direction

Im Sang-soo’s The Household (2010) is a contemporary remake of the 1960 classic thriller by Kim Ki-young of the same name that was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. In the half a century that has transcended between the two films, a mammoth sociological shift had taken place in South Korea. According to director Im Sang-soo who revealed in his interviews, this is the reason behind the different caste background of the families in the two films. The original takes place among the rising middle class of the 1960s, while the remake is set in a luxurious upper-class environment, a timely update that is more relatable given the rich nation today.

The maid is Eun-yi (the effervescent Jeon Do-yeon, who once won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in Secret Sunshine (2007)), hired as a servant for Hae Ra (Seo Woo) who is pregnant with twins, and her rich husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), with a precocious daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon). Hoon flirts with Eun-yi, enticing her with high-couture symbols like the piano—which takes on central significance in the original but remains on the sideline as a sheer prop in this remake—and they begin a sexual relationship. Hoon is horny and likes to be in control in bed, his perverse erotic fetishes shine through in a scene with him having anal sex with his very pregnant wife. He lies naked on bed with his wife on top of him upon penetration. He spreads his arms out wide in a symbolism of being in charge as Christ allegories take over, in a direct reference to the prominent image of Christ on the cross. Hoon is wine-loving and visits Eun-yi in the middle of the night in his bathrobe or underwear. Palpable sexual tension manifests, and the camera at one point of time does an extreme close-up of an intense sexual sequence that pans across the two sweaty bodies gyrating against each other as they make love. Hoon’s hunky tanned frame fills the frame as he lies on top of Eun-yi’s chaste body. The whole sequence is erotic. “I’m about to cum. Can I do it inside you?” Hoon asks.

Eun-yi remains warm with Hoon’s wife, Hae Ra, but their clandestine relationship is outed by the older maid Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), who sees everything that is going on in the vast premises ot the house. She struggles to hang onto her clout gained from her experience, and we know that within her warped mind of her own she fantasizes over having Hoon to herself, her jealousy shining through in her betrayal of Eun-yi, and her regret compounding that in the finale. In a story of twists and turns, Eun-yi gets pregnant, and Hae Ra realizes that her love for children means that she will never abort the baby. Thus the wife plots and scams against Eun-yi, poisoning her stash of herbal medicine that she takes everyday. A gory scene ensues, with the topdown camera causing Eun-yi to seem small as it captures the solitary bathtub in the middle of the toilet, and a naked Eun-yi bleeding from her womb. She hangs herself from the chandelier in the middle of the living room to which she once clung onto for dear life having been sabotaged by the mother-in-law, before lighting her body on fire in front of the family.

The movie is in fact split into three distinct segments, each with a strong aesthetic treatment of its own. Casting a spotlight on present-day Korea is the opening scene that uses the cinema vérité technique in capturing a suicide. We do not know the significance of this suicide, but we see it transposed against the affluent society of modern Korea with cutaways to luxury labels in a grainy shot that documents the shock surrounding the death.

The bulk of the movie that revolves around the dynamics of the house is filmed with a more matter-of-fact aesthetic, using established camera angles and framing techniques to portray the vast size of the house in contrast with the emotional shifts of the characters. The house closes in on the viewer, the walls creating a lonely claustrophobia in spite of the vastness, as the characters are seen walking through the emptiness of the house. Loneliness seems to be the price of luxury.

The final scene captures the family a few years after the tragedy that is Eun-yi’s death. The family appears to have been psychologically scarred by that moment, and the ghost of Eun-yi lives on around them. We see Hoon speaking in English throughout this scene rather than his mother tongue Korean. We note the vivid, quirky colors the scene is captured in, and the eccentricities of this surrounding is further compounded by the outfit of the family. It is Nami’s birthday, and the “Happy Birthday” song that is sung is cold, emotionless, and wintry.

It is debatable whether or not such an upgrade in social class to be more relevant is even necessary, but this is perhaps not the main cause of the rift this remake has created. While the film went to Cannes, Im Sang-soo has caused vast divides in opinion with respect to this film. Some accuse it for not being truthful and respecting of the original in terms of the motives and intentions of the characters, with some critics going as far as to claim that this film should be a standalone rather than a “remake” as it is hardly faithful to the original. The 1960 classic has gone down cinematic history for its “bold, disturbing look at lust, greed, and revenge.” (Tan, 2010), centering on the maid as the seductress of the husband. The maid was devious, wielding sexual control and ill-treating his materialistic pregnant wife and two children. Rather the modern update has the husband being the seductor of the maid in a paradigmic shift of intent and a reversal of personalities. The maid reciprocates, indeed, but the husband remains in control, wielding his power over the innocent maid. The maid also forges an unlikely bond with the child who does not judge her by her social status or background – unlike the wealthy family she works for who disapproves of her lower-class status.

References

Tan, E. (2010, October 22). Report Card: The Housemaid (2010). Retrieved November 25, 2010, from http://filmnomenon2.blogspot.com/2010/10/housemaid-2010.html

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Memories of Murder (2003) 살인의 추억

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 127 minutes
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha, Park Hae-il, Byeon Hee-bong

Theme: Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival

2003 Hawaii International Film Festival
2003 London International Film Festival
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival

Awards:
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival – Best New Director / FIPRESCI Prize (for giving new insight into the roots of political repression in a dictatorship under the guise of the hunt for a serial killer) / Silver Seashell
2003 Cognac Festival du Film Policier – Audience Award/Grand Prix/Prix Médiathèques/Special Prize of the Police
2003 South Korean Grand Bell Awards – Best Actor (Song Kang-ho) / Best Director / Best Film
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival – Asian Film Award
2003 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – Audience Award / Holden Award for Best Script

Nominations:
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival – Golden Seashell

There is something appealing about movies surrounding true unsolved murder cases that draws me to them. Cinema carries the innate capability of re-enacting incidents and capturing such emotions at its rawest. The murderer has escaped scot free, injustice has not been served, and simply put, he/she is still lurking out there. It is tempting to mention other movies like Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher, an award-winning serial killer film that has garnered plenty of accolades, which is based on the investigations surrounding the Zodiac Killer who operated around the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, claiming 37 murders in his letters to newspapers that comprise of alphabets snipped from media publications. Four decades on, the case still remains unsolved. Or, there is also The Black Dahlia (2006) that premiered at Venice, and which is based on the murder of Elizabeth Short, a waitress who was gruesomely murdered in 1947, the unsolved murder having fuelled many books and film adaptations.

And before these films there was Memories of Murder (2003) that premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival. Based on a true story set in 1986 South Korea, a land under militia rule, the case has been publicized as South Korea’s first serial killer case. And yes, what is alluring about the movie is how the case remains unsolved, more than two decades on. This unique time and context indeed provides a breath of fresh air from the typical big-city setting of many films of this ilk. The tumultuous political period has led to poor policial reforms and management, leading to the scot-free escape of this murderer. Further to that, a lack of forensic technology in South Korea back in those days bears an imprint on how DNA test samples have to be shipped to the United States or to Japan to be examined, thus proving to be an impedent to the solving of the case. Even in the middle of a murder investigation, we see life at its most banal as Bong intersperses elements that sum up the livelihood at that era. The establishing shot captures a boy in the meadows, chasing after a grasshopper (01:23). The vastness of the plains and the mountains as the backdrop with nary a skyscraper in sight shows the poverty that reigns under the regime. There is no real order, plenty of unrest, and the police holds no authority whatsoever over the townsfolk who has no qualms about visiting the crime scene and trampling over all the evidence. In what are certainly caveman antics, Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) of the judiciary resorts to torture methods to force confessions out of his suspects. In a sign of times, the law actually allows that. But his methods that will be deemed controversial, unethical and downright cruel today, obviously run afoul of reality when the murders persist despite having forced the confessions out of several suspects. The police chief appears as clueless, and he does not appear to possess any innate ability to study the evidence of the case. Rather, he clamors for media glory, for his name to be linked to the solving of a big-name case. Alas, that glory is not to come.

With a lack of technique, enter Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul who has volunteered for transfer to the rural village in a bid to solve the case. And in all matters of dissonance the handsome, laconic, taciturn big-city detective looks down upon the primitive techniques of the small-town policemen (“Documents never lie”, 52:40, though in a later line his own primitive instincts take over when he says “This document is a lie” 1:57:50). He tries to take charge of the case, he comes up with powerful clues by his own effort that his rural counterpart (“You don’t know this town, that’s why you talk nonsense”, 33:23 / “All perverts are like that. But my eyes cannot be fooled. One look and I know”, 1:08:44) could only grudgingly admit as valid—that the murderer has a modus operandi of striking only on rainy nights, and his victims decked in red outfits. They severally scare the autistic boy such that he runs into the path of an oncoming train and is killed, thereby losing their only lead. This dogged determination however proving to be his subsequent downfall as he becomes unable to deal with setbacks and with the reality that his methods may have proven lacking as well. We see similarities amid the vast differences. Both characters are prone to jumping to their own conclusions. In the scene where a factory worker decked in red underwear strips off and masturbates in the park (1:02:00), his heavy torchlight casting shaky shadows as he jerks off, we see the detectives assume he’s the murderer just on the basis of this pervertic action. Detective Park tortures him into a confession with ugly repercussions. In what is a blatant comparison between old-school patience and city efficiencies, Detective Seo evidently snaps when his conviction was proven wrong with inconclusive DNA evidence.

The tone is set in the opening sequence as a small boy crouches in a wheat field seemingly aware that something is going on. We only later learn of his autism, and his daredevil ways at parroting the police officer hard at work while they both look on at the bound legs of a woman’s body. Such attention to minute detail is eminent in Bong Joon-ho’s later works such as Mother (2009), and serves to add flavor to this film. Every little detail “is so real and unusual that it makes the scene jump off the screen at you” (Hunter, 2010). Detective Park bought the autistic kid a pair of shoes to make up for his earlier trauma at forcing a confession out of him, and the shoe takes on special significance at (1:42) when the kid gets knocked down by the train, with it bloodied and cast aside by the railway tracks.

Bong Joon-ho must be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite contemporary directors, given how both of his works – Memories of Murder (2003) and his monster follow-up The Host (2006) were both named in his Top 20 Favorite Movies since 1992 list.

 

References

Hunter, S. (2005, July 29) ‘Memories of Murder’: From Korea, a True Original. Retrieved on November 17, 2010, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/28/AR2005072802188.html

 

 

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) 오! 수정

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Theme: Romance/Erotica
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Lee Eun-ju, Moon Sung-keun

Ratings: IMDB: 7.0/10

Film Festivals:
2000 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard
2000 Asia-Pacific Film Festival (APFF)
2000 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF)
2001 Singapore International Film Festivkal (SIFF)

Awards:
2000 APFF Best Screenplay
2000 TIFF Asian Film Award: Special Mention
2000 TIFF Special Jury Prize

Nominated:
2001 SIFF Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature Film

This film by South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is a comedy-drama that is significant for its use of black & white cinematography, a rarity—and a quirky trait even—given the modern day color cinematic technologies. Yet another unique editing feature is how this movie is packaged in the form of a novel, with chapters and sub-chapters separating each disparate portion of the film. Parallel editing structures are used, with the core of the movie revolving around the courtship and romance of art gallery owner Jae-Hoon (Moon Sung-keun) and scriptwriter Soo-jung (Lee Eun-ju).

We see identical scenes occurring in Chapter One (Day’s Wait) and Chapter Four (Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare), but taking on different perspectives in each chapter. The movie opens from Jae-Hoon’s perspective and casts light on his inner desires, before adopting Soo-jung’s perspective of the affair in the later half of the movie. There are slight differences in the recount on both parts, and what actually happened is, really, anyone’s guess. But this also means that identical scenes are featured in the film, with identical dialogue, such as at 06:11, the scene outside the art gallery. Further, the hotel room conversation at 04:10 is recaptured at 55:40, albeit from a different perspective. The first scene captures Jae-hoon with Soo-jung over the phone while the latter captures Soo-jung with Jae-hoon over the phone, whilst Hong intersperses this scene with a cutaway of Jae-hoon sitting by the coffee table in his hotel room to crystalise and exemplify the concept.

The still shot at 11:00 as we see Jae-hoon and several students staring and gossiping about something that is occurring in the distance. We can only focus on their gaze that leads beyond the camera. We soon realize it is a film scene, and the camera cuts away to Soo-jung walking down a path, framed towards the extreme right of the picture. This pivotal scene which involves Soo-jung picking up the winter gloves Jae-hoon accidentally left behind is repeated later on, albeit from Soo-jung’s point of view of picking up the winter gloves.

Jae-hoon makes his feelings known to Soo-jung through a forced kiss at 18:17, a clandestine action that goes on behind the back of their mutual friend Young-soo, who also has the hots for Soo-jung. Hong uses an off-center framing as Soo-jung warily follows the male protagonist, who wanted to show her something interesting and funny, down the very dark alleyway. She stops and hides in the shadows, before slowly backing towards the light and waiting. This creates an impression that even though she knows her actions are perhaps improper deep down, she was ready to commit to Jae-hoon in spite of all that she is vocally saying. If she wasn’t commital, Hong would perhaps have made the directorial decision to have Soo-jung turn around and walk away, or remain cast in the shadows to create a greater sense of rape, forced action and secrecy.

At 28:25 she volunteers to be his girlfriend only when he drinks – and this is shown through his more humane and less eccentric ways when he is slightly tipsy. The camera remains still and focused on the faces of the two characters as the taxi brings them to their destination – a cutaway shows them in a park sharing an intimate moment, in the shadows – an indication of Jae-hoon’s wish for the relationship to remain discrete (28:40). The scene is absolutely silent save for the ambient chirping of crickets in the background. Contrast this with Soo-jung’s later interpretation of the two sharing an intimate moment in the lighted foreground, an indication of a will to be open about their relationship (1:24:13)

Yet there are several cinematic decisions that has left me baffled. While differences in story plot and actions do prevail throughout the story, there are other minor differences that confused me and I can’t determine their significance to the study. For instance, in the dinner scene at 07:41, we see a still camera frame as the characters discuss paintings and the trust the two male characters place on each other. The three characters in the foreground are in focus while two other customers fill the empty space in the background with their meal. Yet the scene that directly complements it at 1:03:07 shows that the customers have left and the shop assistant clearing up the dirty dishes instead — could this be sheer happenstance, a discontinuity that was overlooked?Also, by my film notes (and unless I have really been quite inattentive), Jae-Hoon (the name of the male protagonist)’s name was only introduced midway through the show – but I am unable to make of any reason for it.

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is ultimately a very sexually suggestive movie with dialogue littered with sexual innuendoes and plenty of sexually-charged scenes throughout the film. Soo-jung, for instance, is accustomed to not wearing a bra during winter, and the camera captures via a medium shot both the tender action of Jae-hoon licking her nipples and the violent thrusts of Soo-jung masturbating the latter mid-way through the movie. Soo-jung is a virgin who throughout the film appears unwilling to give up her virginity to Jae-hoon. The camera captures his hand strategically placed under her skirt, and the audience can logically complete the mental image that he is feeling up her vagina. Examples of suggestive dialogue exchanges in the movie include: “This is all you want to do” / “You’ve got my breasts, haven’t you?”. Later on, there are lines such as: “I want to suck your whole body. Every inch. I want to sleep with you.” “Really?” “Yes” “I want to do it too”. Lastly, we know Soo-Jung gives up her virginity through the violent thrusting action of anal sex in one of the climactic scenes. Jae-hoon guides her along as she screams in pain, making sure he remains conscious throughout the process to prevent the error of calling out a wrong name as he did earlier.

Yet there is a notable absence of one cinematic device that has frequently been used to convey the sexually-fuelled scenes: that of cigarettes and the act of smoking. Rather, Hong opts for a more linguistic and visual approach than such a semiotic function. Testament to the quirky nature of the film is the light-hearted soundtrack that is used virtually throughout the film, ranging from the light-hearted children’s folk beats as the credit rolls at the start of the film, as well as the music used whilst transcending the different chapters.

It is unfortunate that leading female actress Lee Eun-ju would commit suicide five years after the release of this film following her involvement in The Scarlet Letter (2004). Passing on virtually at the peak of her career at the age of 24 following notable performances in Brotherhood (2004), The Scarlet Letter (2004), Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2001) and this film, I cannot help but wonder if she will one day take on the legendary prominence and impact that Ruan Ling-yu had on the Hong Kong film industry in the 1930s. Granted that Ruan Ling-yu was much more prolific in the number of films she was involved in, both stars are similar in their realistic portrayals of subtle nuances in everyday characters. Yet whether the huge churn of actors and actresses today would have rendered such a death insignificant and perhaps even forgettable remains to be seen.

The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well (1996) 돼지가 우물에 빠진 날

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Kim Eui-sung, Lee Eung-kyung, Cho Eun-sook, Park Jin-song, Bang Eun-hee
Theme: Romance/Erotica

Ratings:
IMDB: 6.6/10

Film Festivals:
1997 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1997 Rotterdam International Film Festival
1996 Vancouver International Film Festival

Awards:
1997 APFF: Best New Director
1997 RIFF: Tiger Award
1996 VIFF: Dragons and Tigers Award

It is very tempting to infer that the title of Hong Sang-soo’s 1996 directorial debut “The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well” draws direct reference from the 1954 John Cheever novella “The Day The Pig Fell Into The Well”. I have yet to read the book and thus am unable to draw literary references between the book and the film. However, going by the brief abstract I found online, the book is a story about a New York family that never fails to remember, on random nights, the day the pig fell into the well and the other corresponding events that also occurred that very day – such is the impact such an out-of-the-ordinary event poses on an average person. It is tantamount to how it is alleged that most Britons are able to remember what they were doing the instant they heard that Princess Diana died in 1997, or how Michael Jackson fans can remember what they were up to when news of his death broke. “Pigs falling into wells” is definitely a more light-heated reference than death, but the gist is there, the awkwardness one experiences from the abrupt disruption to the routine of everyday lives.

This movie paints such a portrait, and the well in which the pig falls into is a metaphor for the city of Seoul in 1996, says director Hong Sang-soo in his interview notes (Pusan International Film Festival Daily, 1996, cited on asianmediawiki.com). The director, considered one of South Korea’s best contemporary auteurs, depicts four individuals seeking fulfillment amid the urban jungle that is Seoul and their progressive attitudes. Four separate stories come together through a running narrative thread as they go about their everyday routines in the city in an editing structure akin to future acclaimed films like Crash (2004) and Babel (2006), albeit the latter two films occurring in different locales. The movie intermingles the incidents of the four protagonists: Hyo-sub (a struggling novelist), Bo-kyung (housewife), Dong-woo (salesman) and Min-jae (box office girl) through unobtrusive storytelling techniques.

Through an inference of relations drawn within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we know that Hyo-sub is juggling two relationships at the same time. He is with Min-jae in the restaurant at (04:08; Part 2) and observed by Bo-kyung in a bookstore (00:20; Part 3). The prominence of the latter is amplified by Hong’s framing, as the secondary character in the distance remains in focus as Hyo-sup continually steals glances at the character. The scene then shifts to a hotel room as they engage in a tight embrace. The dialogue, frequently sexually-suggestive in the movie, includes lines like “Do you have sex with your husband?” as the camera casts a top-down shot on the couple sitting on the floor eating fruits (03:20; Part 3) in a whimsical scene that conveys lust and desire between the two characters, while harboring metaphorical references to the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve. At 05:33, the camera cuts away to Hyo-sub, shirtless, sucking the toes of the woman in an erotic gesture that must be a fetish. He lovingly clings onto the feet of the woman, biting her toes, and the close-up sequence gives the viewer both a voyeuristic sense of spying into an intimate moment. Later on, different angles follow before the camera finally cuts to a top-down shot of the couple making love. The camera is high up in the ceiling and the wide shot creates the perspective of the couple being small in context of the room.

Hyo-sub the struggling novelist is despondent even in social situations such as the karaoke scene, where he sits despondently by the corner of the frame (03:26). To make matters worse, the waitress spills hot food on Hyo-sub, who reacts violently by throwing a tantrum. In a sign that nobody cares, the others move on with their respective conversations. At 05:26, the framing takes a wide angle such that we see the goings-on in the whole restaurant rather than an egocentric focus on the center of Hyo-sub’s universe. This creates an impression of how small an individual is in context to his/her surroundings, and no matter how he attempts to make a scene by thrusting himself in the center of attention, it is fruitless when people simply don’t care. The incident rears an ugly head when at 05:46 the camera frames the scene outside the restaurant with the door to the right and Hyo-sub on the telephone to the left. The waitress walks out and he kicks up a fuss, with his unreasonable attitude pissing her off. Alienated by his friends, he turns to a prostitute. The palpable sexual tension resonates between one very willing woman for the money and one very unwilling client. The woman appears stark naked on screen, and helps herself to the entire penetration act in a scene that is just weird. That is perhaps a problem that arose only because of the frequent jumps in character focus. This makes it virtually impossible to connect, to empathize or sympathize with any of the characters.

The main problem with such movies is how the focus jumps from character to character intangibly. They are introduced, ditched, and then brought forth again. It requires plenty of patience to understand the four separate narratives, and to glean an actual understanding of their connections. Yet it is indicative of Hong’s aesthetic and stylistic device that will be seen in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) that has also been reviewed on this site. The slow pace of the movie makes it frustrating as the audience wills for something to happen. Even if Hong aspires to capture the essence of mundane humdrum nature of everyday life, there is usually much more going on. The muted emotions bottle up, only to be unleashed through sexually explicit scenes that sometimes occur without any distinct purpose. And it is a struggle, indeed, just to keep track of the disparate characters and how their story arc intersects with each other. If anything, this is a movie in which nothing much happens.

Il Mare (2000) 시월애


Country:
South Korea
Theme: Romance
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Lee Hyun-Seung
Starring: Gianna Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae

Ratings: IMDB: 7.7/10
Film Festivals: NIL
Awards: NIL
Nominated: NIL

Il Mare is the Italian translation of “The Sea” and otherwise title of this 2000 Korean romance (melo)drama that incidentally occurs by a body of water that constitutes more of a lake than a sea. I’m no geographic expert, of course, but the otherwise misnomer is rescued as it is the namesake of the house that takes centerstage in this story. The film’s unique feature is definitely the fact that it was subsequently picked up by Warner Brothers and remade into (a relatively thrashy) 2006 Hollywood feature The Lake House that starred Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. Or, maybe it was just poor casting on Hollywood’s part.

One can only trust the Koreans to come up with such a romance storyline that is simple yet able to vividly capture the hearts and imaginations of many worldwide. Sung-hyun (Lee jung-hae) and Eun-joo (Jun Ji-hyun) are occupants of Il Mare, albeit two years apart from each other. Their mysterious connection, being a magical mailbox that traverses time and delivers correspondence between the two characters, the former in 1998 and the latter in 2000. The characters transcend the typical story arc of disbelief to marvel, as the power of words manifests itself in a relationship with the two protagonists falling head over heels for each other, albeit without having even met each other once and in spite of the time lapse. Suddenly, Eun-joo is the “one” and the girl of Sung-hyun’s dreams – though the time lapse means he could only admire her from afar for the time period before she even hears about him.

But the story development is smart and succinct, and manages to traverse any logical loopholes that may happen with ease right down to the final frame. Yes, even science fiction aficionados are not alienated as science fiction clichés that two selves cannot occur within the same parallel universe are addressed. They wonder what happened to Cola, who “cannot be at two places at the same time”, through scientific images. But at the end we realize their science fiction notion [29:01] holds true in a fairly straightforward, albeit ironic ending that leaves the audience is left to think and mull over how it will all work out in the end.

Director Lee uses parallel timing structures in his editing, with sequences moving chronologically in both the 1998 and 2000 eras, both of which alternating between one another as the characters develop and gradually progress through their respective story arc. This parallel editing method is most evident in two instances – first of the two characters as they rush to the mailbox each day to retrieve their mail, and second of the two characters after they begin “dating”, when each of them engages in activities that the other propose they do in their letter. The 2000 Eun-joo suggests the 1998 Sung-hyun visit the amusement park and he does, while the latter suggest she visit a countryside pub where he left a bottle fo wine for her. For the pub scene, the initial scene at 1:02:15 cuts away to the next at 1:02:26; and the use of the same hue tones indicate the creation of an identical plane of space, as both characters feel the warmth of their actions/connection.


The sole link between them is the mailbox, and he opts for different tints in his representation of the mailbox that signifies different stages of the relationship. This is the clearest when the starting and ending scenes are compared with each other. We still see Eun-joo sitting at her porch penning a Christmas card, and the mise-en-scene of the frame that follows in the subsequent scene is absolutely identical, with the sole exception of the colors of the scene. For a case in point, the following two shots at 02:14 (the start of the movie, before the magic of the mailbox unfolded) and 1:32:48 (the end of the movie, after the mailbox had done its job), are worth comparing.

Yet another common directorial feature in Il Mare is the frequent of shaky close-up shots, especially when the characters undergo emotional turmoils, guilt or breakdowns due to the nature of their relationship. This technique works exceptionally in this movie, especially when transposed with shots of the picturesque house by the lake that creates a stark contrast.

Dialogue is atypical of a Korean romance film, with philosophical (and relatively mushy) lines such as:

  • “There are three things people can’t hide – coughing, poverty and love. The more you try to hide them the more they rise to the surface.”
  • “Love is a self-inflicted pain. I hope you’ll find peace within you.“

Il Mare may be overshadowed by subsequent, more high-profile Korean romance features such as My Sassy Girl (2001) that further cemented the country’s reputation for its romance dramas. The next high-profile marriage of time travel with a love story will perhaps only be seen in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveller’s Wife, which also spurned a Hollywood adaptation in the form of the 2009 movie of the same name.