Won Bin and Shin Ha-kyun make for cute sibling rivalry in this ultimately tragic (or at least bittersweet) film that reminded me very much of Friend, another massively successful picture devoted to the display of another kind of brotherly bond (I guess it also has some resonances with Taegukgi).
Why did this film, which is really not far elevated from television melodrama (with Yu-jin’s mother from ‘Winter Sonata’ and all), do so well in Korean theatres? First, it’s fairly successfully unpredictable, which is saying something for a story that has been told many times before in just the way that it’s told here. We know something bad is going to happen to one of the brothers (okay, one of your hearthrobs, depending on which side of 15 years old you lie, doesn’t fare too well at the end of this movie – you saw it coming, deal with it). We naturally understand the conflict between the troublemaking and the studious brother. We know it’s all the fault of the absent father, right? Furthermore, we figure there’s got to be some sort of Oedipal thing going on, what with an over-protective mother and her two young sons, one handsome, one clever, running amok as they try to discover Who They Really Are. Yeah, we know and comprehend all of this, but still, director Ahn and the performers manage to engage us with their controlled, fundamentally very sound work. Aside from Won Bin’s haircut, there’s nothing too flashy here to distract our attention from the basic emotional core of the story.
The acting really stands out. Won Bin’s increasing maturity is surely a big reason for this film’s success. He comfortably handles a leading man role, and not in a fleeting I’m-so-bored-with-my-super-stardom kind of way like Kwon Sang-woo (My Tutor Friend, Once Upon a Time in High School), for instance.
The film’s lack of a romance is very interesting. Lee Bo-yeong appears, she and Won Bin hit it off, then he chooses his jealous brother’s feelings over her love and she’s flung out of the narrative like an unwanted bunch of chrysanthemums. For once in a movie, when the narrating character says “And I never saw her again,” it’s actually true (within the realm of the plot)! Perhaps the lack of a happy love story has something to do with Won Bin’s forthcoming military service. Is he choosing scripts that will make sure his (let’s face it, predominantly young female) fans keep longing for more? I very much doubt he’ll be out of work in a couple of years when he returns from quietly serving his time in fatigues. So long as that trademark sneer isn’t all messed up, akin to Shin Ha Kyun’s cleft palate in this movie. And what of Shin? Well, he smartly notches up another spectacularly unnoticeable performance. Quite the chameleon of the Korean acting profession, he’s demonstrated time and again that he doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to his co-performers nor to the stylistic meanderings of his directors. Fans of his Sympathy for Mr Vengeance role will probably wish he had some deeper material to work with here.
Unfortunately, there’s only one outcome for all this melodrama, and anyone who’s read this far will have noticed that I’ve already spoiled it. Don’t be put off, it’s standard fare for this type of film. Viewers are ruthlessly prompted to weep on cue, and only a highly cynical and far detached observation will keep the floodgates from opening. Go with the flow, I say, because this is another solid reminder that the best films Koreans are making right now aren’t spooky horror shows, or violent festival circuit shockers, or lyrical ballads to traditional culture, or even dumb sex comedies (all of which I like, by the way!). No, with all the to-ing and fro-ing of TV-trained talent in Korea, and with all those sincerely sad stories to tell about their recent history, through their collective memories and personal hardships, it’s the Korean melodramas that strike me as among the best of their kind anywhere in the world.