Friday, September 17, 2010

Far East Specials: Christmas in August

Christmas in August
(1998, Jin-ho Hur)

I was thinking long and hard about some witty and clever sentence I could use to begin this review of Jin-ho Hur’s romance drama Christmas in August, but such things rarely bear fruit for me. The best I could come up with is that sometimes the best romances are the ones that never were. The notion that two people feel a connection, a bond that perpetually brings them together is something you, I, we can all relate too. In certain instances that bond will develop slowly, taking little baby steps as you and that special someone carefully reveal more about yourself through brief encounters. In other examples, it feels like love at first sight and things move along quickly and passionately. Then comes that first kiss and the declaration, in some fashion or other, of a person’s affections for the other. The end result, we hope, is love. What of those stories that are clearly driven by love but in which the central characters are prevented from ever fully rejoicing in their hopeful union?

In Christmas in August, the two bashful non-lovers are the owner of a photo studio in his early thirties named Jung-won (played with irresistible charm by Suk-kyu Han) and Darim (Eun-ha Shim), a twenty something traffic cop. On the day Jung-won returns from attending the funeral of his friend’s father, he finds Darim waiting impatiently outside his store. She needs some very specific photos enlarged. What image is captured by the photograph is not important, but there is something, a tiny little something that ignites between the two. It’s quite subtle, and when Darim returns the next to pick up her photos, she and Jung-won begin a little bit of small talk. He rides a moped when travelling to and fro and encounters Darim from time to time, and they share some friendly chit chat. He even offers her a ride one day as she carries some terribly heavy parcels. I think most of you can guess where this is heading, and you’d be correct. They clearly enjoy each other’s company and there are hints that the feelings they hold for one another may run a little bit deeper than mere friendship.

It should be noted that director Jin-ho Hur developed story in a very specific way with what I believe to be a very specific intention. He doesn’t simply want to tell a love story. Rather, he wants to tell Jung-won and Darim’s love story. Their romance blossoms in slow fashion, very slow fashion in fact. Both characters are comfortable with one another, but seem to proceed with baby steps when it comes to true love. We know that Jung-won had a true love at one point in the past (she visits him briefly early in the film), and maybe it is this broken past love that constantly sets up some imaginary barriers whenever the opportunity arises. Let it be known that I don’t refer to ‘imaginary barriers’ in that Jung-won clearly prevents himself from taking any extra steps in order to woo Darim. He just seems bit reserved and bashful at times. I think he really likes Darim but is of the type who believes he had one chance at true love and it failed, so he simply isn’t willing enough to embrace something new. Of course, Darim isn’t much more ambitious in her mannerisms, although she’s the one who asks the more questions (about who is and all) and gives hints that she’d like for them to be something of a couple. So Jin-ho Hur has these two adorable characters come in and out of contact tons of times throughout the film, each time there being a stronger and stronger connection between the two, but again, the increases are incremental. Every once in a while, the viewer sees Jung-won taking some pills and visiting the hospital, so we are warned, rather early on in fact, that all is not quite right with him. When it seems as though he and Darim are about to take the next step, well, the forces that regulate Jung-won’s health have other ideas unfortunately.

I think it’s rather easy to lump Christmas in August into the category of films deemed ‘tearjerkers,’ especially for its final 10 minutes or so, and I should add that it isn’t a category of films that I’m terribly fond of. That being said, I was charmed to a certain degree by this movie. Much of that has to do with Suk-kyu Han’s performance and Jun-ho Hur’s directing. Suk-kyu Han’s Jung-won is such a lovable guy that it’s pretty hard not to like the guy. He isn’t incredibly handsome, he isn’t terribly athletic and doesn’t even show off any kind of remarkable intelligence, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t want to hang around with him for an afternoon (provided I knew how to speak Korean). This man loves to laugh and smile. In fact, he almost reminds me a little of myself in how he reacts to people and things around him. He’ll often shrug or giggle things off in a very nonchalant type of fashion. Not a whole lot gets this guy angry and especially excited, he often just enjoys being nice and cool, all the while showing off that smile. Happy-go-lucky I believe is the term, but thankfully not like Happy go Lucky. The moments when the reality of his health kick in or when people are really trying his patience are jarring because we witness Jung-won’s attitude change dramatically. They don’t occur frequently, but when they do it seems as though he takes on a completely different persona, one diametrically opposed to the one we had explored up until those points. I’m not sure each one works, but at the very least they showed a different side to Jung-won, one indicating that he can be broken down if pushed too far by frustrating circumstances (or when drunk).

As a director, Jun-ho Hur offers a quite affair. In a style reminiscent of so many Korean and even Japanese films I’ve seen recently, he’ll often invite the viewers to saviour the moment, any moment, precisely because the finer details of people can be discovered in those seemingly random and unimportant periods. One can discern much about the psychology of a specific character in these instances. A glance here, a smile there, a sigh of relief, etc. If you enjoy the type of films where some scenes, on a surface level, come across as mundane because they only show someone taking a photograph or preparing a meal in the kitchen, but in reality you know that all the details in the characters’ movements and gestures add to the ‘character building’ aspect of a film, then I’d say Christmas in August is right up your ally. As for myself, it’s a style that only a few years ago I would not have found appealing, but that has quickly won me over. I think it’s a style that, rather than try the audience’s patience, is in fact paying respect to the audience. Movies which are directed and presented in the way Jin-ho hur gives us Christmas in August ( or in the way Kohei Oguri gave Sleeping Man, or how Sang-soo Hong presented The Power of Kangwon Province) know that audiences are more intelligent and discerning than are often given credit for.

Does anything make Christmas in August truly stand out however? I don’t think so. It’s well paced, well acted- nay, really well acted (again, I was struck by Suk-kyo Hun’s charm) and offers plenty of cute little scenes that offer tidbits about who Jung-won and Darim are. The film’s conclusion is…satisfying in many ways, although if one is looking for a more traditional ending to a romance drama, they might leave a bit disappointed. Never did I think the film broke any new ground, but nor did it have to. It sets out to tell a very specific kind of love story, one that reminds how oftentimes ‘life’, in its harsh and unexpected ways, will get into the way of the rosy plans we had.

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