More noise than signal

The Old Garden

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Korean cinema, as Mugatu might exclaim, is so hot right now. Perhaps a little too hot for its own good, seeing as Park Chan Wook’s superb Oldboy seems to be taking the video nasty fall for nutcase Cho Seung-Hui’s little round of real life Doom at Virginia Tech. While I’ve come to associate the country’s output with wilful lunacy and extremes, this altogether more delicate piece from Sang-soo Im might force a re-evaluation of this opinion.

We first meet Hyun-woo (Jin-hee Ji) on his release from the better part of sixteen years in gaol for his role in student uprisings in support of a socialist democracy. A lot has changed in that time, which I guess is as good a reason as any to reflect on his life and start dredging up flashbacks. Goodness, this non-linear narrative epidemic has gone global! Thankfully Hyun-woo has the common decency to keep his flashbacks in chronological order, unlike the baffling voyage into randotime that La Vie En Rose presented us.

What’s plaguing Hyun-woo in particular is his relationship with Yoon-hee (Jung-ah Yum), a pretty young art teacher sympathetic to the cause who agrees to hide an on the lam Hyun-woo in her rural home. Before long they become lovers, but before much longer they are spilt up as an ill-advised trip into the city sees Hyun-woo captured and imprisoned for life. The big daftie.

Of course, now that he’s released there’s all sorts of time to spent catching up with each other. Or there would be, had Yoon-hee not rather inconveniently died of cancer some years previously. Through various left letters that hadn’t been delivered to him while in prison, he pieces together the remnants of her life, as well as the surprising news that he’s a father.

Earlier this morning I was bemoaning the fate of Solitary Fragments, a characterless character-driven piece where not only does close to nothing happen, the characters are so bland it’s impossible to give a damn about any of them. The Old Garden isn’t exactly a thrill a minute roller coaster ride either (although admittedly in what I assume to be a concession to maintaining Korea’s edgy film making reputation a minor supporting character does set them self on fire and hurl herself off a building), but it’s a heck of a lot easier to connect with the lives of Hyun-woo and Yoon-hee thanks to some superb performances and sharp writing.

Both Jin-hee Ji and Jung-ah Yum give powerful turns that bring the emotions of the film to centre stage, and you’d have to be truly heartless not to be touched by them. The direction of the few riot scenes captures the inherent chaos rather well, and the motivations of the characters are never less than completely believable. Some of the tangentially touched upon lives of fellow movement veterans, none of whom appear to have had a much better time of it than Hyun-woo and appear as maladjusted to modern society as Hyun-woo is does a good job of adding more pathos to the film. Can never have too much pathos, after all.

It’s not perfect, I suppose I should add. While it’s certainly not bad enough to start staging dirty protests over, the pacing is a little patchy in places. This is something of an issue when the film is stretching to near two hours, and I’m left with the impression that cutting quarter of an hour from the running time might have made the difference between a really good film and a classic.

That’s pretty much the only stone I can think of to throw at it, and when you’re as much of a grumpy old git as I am that’s rather impressive. Rarely less than captivating and often touching, it’s certainly worth spending the effort to track down The Old Garden. Be warned, however, as despite the title there’s no significant garden content whatsoever, regardless of age.