masterly master lee

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Sunny 님은 먼 곳에 (2008) review

This could not go wrong: here we have the story of a wimun (“consolation visit”) troupe of entertainers traveling to Vietnam, scenes of seedy bars in Korea and Vietnam, 1970s fashion, the veteran actor Chŏng Chinyŏng – who must be credited for one of the best police car pursuit scenes in cinema history (in Green Fish) – director Yi Jun-ik of former The King and the Clown fame, and Su Ae, an actress with a uniquely, stunning natural beauty. At the start of the movie we see Su Ae play a young woman by the name of Suni who finds herself in a very uncomfortable arranged marriage situation. Because her husband is still in love with another woman, he shows no affection to her and has left her to help out his cold-hearted mother during his army years. She regularly visits him, but he is heart-broken and feels only guilt towards her. When he is sent off to fight in Vietnam his mother decides to go after him, feeling that he’s gone off on an intended suicide mission, but Su Ae manages to persuade her to let her go instead. What follows is a series of events in which our protagonist and the small group of performers she travels with as a singer (now called Sunny) find themselves in the midst of battle, in the underground tunnels of the Vietcong, and at various army shows. What we do not see is what she hopes to achieve and how her feelings change throughout the journey. And that they don’t change is, in itself, no weakness. Considering her situation, it would have been very odd to see her expect anything other than hope, of some recognition of her love for or at least dedication to him.

As a preface, the storyline holds great promise, but unfortunately, the scenario  (by Choi Sŏkhwan) does not let us empathise much with any of the characters in the movie. Although Sun Ae does an excellent job at looking hurt and fragile even throughout performances, the viewer is left to figure out what keeps driving her, and how her feelings might change as a result of some of the shocking situations she finds herself in. Chŏng’s talent is also wasted as he is made to overreact throughout nearly the entire movie. He is a band leader who acts like a gangster and never shows any interest in communication, love, food, or humour. Instead, the scenario “entertains” us with lots of action, a few nostalgic songs, and rather comic book-like characters. Considering the topic of the Vietnam War has for so long been avoided, this particular scenario is a true let-down, especially as new generations of Koreans will form their judgement partly on the basis of movies like this. South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War is not questioned or reflected on once, and although most entertainers traveling to Vietnam to support the troops will undoubtedly have done so to earn money, it is hard to believe they didn’t also feel some sense of purpose or empathy with the young men. But not here. The only expressions of pro-South Korean army sentiment are perhaps those where the Americans and the Vietcong are shown committing war crimes. In fact, several war scenes left Master Lee with the impression that he was supposed to feel pity for the South Korean army, even though we all know that Master Lee does not do pity. The final scene, fortunately, was not too bad, partly because by this time viewers would have come to realise that the director really does not have much to tell us at all, but also because as an ending it is actually fairly realistic. Shame the bombastic soundtrack almost ruins it.

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