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Festival Film Review: Gabi – a glossy period spy movie with plenty to recommend it

A nice pot of Java

This year’s Korean Film Festival has a focus on period film – the closing gala is Masquerade, and we also have The Grand Heist, I am the King, and Gabi.

Gabi is set in the last decade of the 19th Century, at a time when the Japanese and the Russians were competing for influence in the peninsula. King Gojong is trying to build up an army with Russian weapons and military advisors in order to resist Japanese encroachment, but the Japanese are not to be thwarted.

Joo Ji-mo as Ilyich, sporting the latest 1896 fashion - pinstripe
Joo Ji-mo as Ilyich, sporting the latest 1896 double-breasted pinstripe

The production team has been careful to give the storyline enough true-life facts to make the rather convoluted plot some form of credibility. The action is set just after the Japanese assassination of Queen Min, when King Gojong fled to the Russian legation for safety before taking up residence in the Deoksu Palce. It was a time when coffee was becoming popular, and was also supposed to be a medium for administering poison. Gojong was the target of an assassination attempt in this way in 1898. And the secret passage between the Deoksu Palace and the Russian legation features in the film too. The tea-house in the Deoksu Palace gardens is featured in the closing scene, though in Gabi it is built to honour the coffee bean rather than the tea leaf.

Electric light in the Russian Legation
Electric lights were installed in Gyeongbokgung in 1885, and Seoul had its first electric trams in 1899, so an electric standard lamp in the Russian legation in 1896 is not completely unthinkable

The CGI team has created an impressive facsimile of the exterior of the Russian legation, sitting on top of the hill behind the Deoksu palace and dominating the skyline like a fortress. How true to life the reconstruction is I don’t know, but at its centre is the watch tower, the only part of the building which remains today. The costumes, so important in a period drama, are lovely to look at, though some of the Western dress looks a touch anachronistic – some of the men’s suits look 1930s than 1890s, while Tanya’s riding outfit looks more 21st century. But this really doesn’t matter at all. This isn’t a documentary. It’s entertainment.

Kim So-yeon as expert barista Tanya
Kim So-yeon as expert barista Tanya. Any way you like it, as long as it’s black filter coffee

A regal-looking Kim So-yeon1 gives a poised performance as Tanya, a beautiful trilingual master barista double- or even triple- agent torn between love of country, boyfriend Ilyich (another spy) and coffee.

If you’re not quite sure whose side Tanya and Ilyich are on at any one time that’s probably intended. Just go with the flow. It’s all good-looking, glossy high quality entertainment which doesn’t require too much thought.

Jang Yoon-hyeon (장윤현) Gabi (가비 – 加比, 2011) score-2score-2score-2score-1score-0

  1. Kim So-yeon as Tanya hardly ever has a hair out of place, but is in desperate need of a manicurist. Or they should have hired a hand model for the close-ups of Tanya’s fingers. []

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