Bet on My Disco is a movie of simple pleasures, but it doesn’t entirely do the film justice to reduce it to the (simple!) level of the plot summary above. There are plenty of laughs in Disco, but it’s not an out-and-out comedy; instead, director Kim Dong-Won has made a film that is, bizarrely, almost as much a realist drama as it is a dance pic.
Lee Jung-jin (as our hero, Hae-juk) mixes a broad — and very physical — comic acting style with his surprisingly touching portrayal of a young man in love to great effect, with fight scenes (including a punch-up in a discotheque set to flamenco) running back-to-back with images of small town life in 1981 Korea.
Despite plenty of wacky sound effects and characters mugging at the camera, Disco isn’t even shot like a comedy, with director Kim favouring a long take style that would be quite disconcerting if it wasn’t so successful. Similarly, Kim treats the line between functional pathos and sentimental tacky crap with the respect it deserves, while never allowing the general insanity of the plot to completely override the film’s emotional content.
Structurally, Bet on My Disco plays like Robert Altman’s worst nightmare. Seemingly unrelated stories and characters cross paths with alarming frequency, but never with the self-consciousness that might be expected. There’s still plenty of room for cheap laughs; this film is a veritable horn o’ plenty of excrement gags, but even these are suspiciously good natured — despite an unfortunate accident with a pushcart full of poo, Bong-ja’s father is still able to laugh at the ridiculousness of his situation (“A load of crap almost killed me!”).
If the sign of a good comedy is its ability to manipulate an audience without them caring (as opposed to simply not realising), then Bet on My Disco is nothing short of a complete success. The film successfully makes the transition from the ridiculous to the hyper-sublime, if there is such a thing; the sight of the moon transforming into a giant fluorescent love-heart should be nauseating… but it’s not! Needless to say, it’s not perfect — there are times at which the shifts between ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’ are a little too defined, but most of the time Kim’s technical assurance wins out.
There is truly something for everybody in Disco, provided you can stomach the ruffled shirts and lapels. It’s a cold-hearted person indeed who doesn’t feel some sympathy for Bongpal’s family in their plight, or who doesn’t want the happy ending that is more-or-less assured in this film. The film’s biggest fault is that it can’t entirely decide what it wants to be, but, part comedy, part romance, part drama, and of course, part dance movie Bet on My Disco ultimately succeeds because it’s all heart — a film in which a gangster can secretly be a mambo king can’t possibly have an evil bone in its celluloid body.