How reassuring it is, after the disappointment that was Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, to find that there are still directors out there who can serve up what you expect. Maybe that’s a bad thing: maybe you need to be surprised every now and then. On the other hand, there’s no shame in wanting a dose of comfort food to restore yourself. With people like Hong Sang-soo, you know what movie you are going to get – he delivers pretty much the same movie time after time. And there are others like that too.
Having taken out a trial subscription to Netflix in order to watch Okja, I thought I’d see what else it had to offer before I cancel. Actually, it’s not half bad. 18 Korean movies at the moment, with a good spread of genres from the arthouse to the blockbuster. There’s currently one there called A Good Rain Knows. Not one I’d heard of, but clicking through for more detail I find it’s a Hur Jin-ho movie from 2009 that had completely passed me by, sometimes called Season of Good Rain (호우시절). As someone in whose early Korean movie diet the gentle romances such as Christmas in August and One Fine Spring Day loomed large, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Hur Jin-ho, so my finger was irresistibly drawn towards the “Play” button.
Depending on the frame of mind I’m in, with the typical Korean melodrama / romance where the two main characters are unable to say the magic words “I love you”, I either relish the beauty of the restrained emotion and the bitter-sweet turmoil of unexpressed feelings seething beneath the surface, or I just want to punch them both in the face. But with lead characters as gorgeous-looking as Jung Woo-sung and Gao Yuan-yuan it is impossible to want to do the latter. You have to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Into the bargain you get introduced to the poetry of Du Fu (712-770 CE) (May, the Chinese love interest played by Gao Yuan-yuan, is a tour guide in a park in Chengdu devoted to his memory); enjoy some cross-cultural dialogue about the relative merits of Sichuan and Korean cuisine; and see some cute pandas. You are also reminded of the devastation caused by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake: Jung-Woo-sung’s character works for a Korean construction company involved in some of the rebuilding efforts. Manager Ji, the Korean boss of the company’s Chengdu operations, is played by prolific character actor Kim Sang-ho, and it’s always good to see him. Here his role is to get in the way of the two leads spending quality time together.
Another pleasantly surprising thing about this movie: normally when English language dialogue is spoken by Korean actors, it sounds as if they don’t know the meaning of what they’re saying: the actors have just been coached to emit a sequence of vowels and consonants which could mean anything as far as they are concerned. (Hong Sang-soo movies are a particular example of this). With the Korean and Chinese couple in this movie it is critical to the story that they appear to understand what they are saying to each other: they can only communicate with each other in English, having met while studying in the US.
If nothing much happens in this movie, that’s the nature of the beast. You enjoy the visuals, the very human awkwardness and the emotional restraint; and if they get it together at the end then that’s a bonus. You wouldn’t want to watch something like this every day. But after seeing a movie where a director is trying to push the boundaries with somewhat questionable results it’s good to see a movie by a director who knows what he does well, and delivers what he knows will please his audience.
Hur Jin-ho (허진호): Season of Good Rain (호우시절, 2009).