Always (오직 그대만) had the honour of opening the 2011 Busan Film Festival in the exclusive new cinema center. Directed by auteur Song Il-gon (송일곤) and featuring heavyweight stars So Ji-sub (소지섭) and Han Hyo-joo (한효주), the event made an indelible statement of the ‘Koreaness’ of the festival.
While the choice may have had nationalistic sentiment, opening with Always was a surprising decision as the film is a showcase of mediocrity. The over-abundance of cliches may very well be intentional, but the lack of narrative depth and character development make Always a shamelessly commercial affair that while competent offers little originality.
Cheol-min (So Ji-sub) is a former Mixed Martial Artist champion who turned his back on the sport. Now scraping a living by delivering water and manning a parking lot booth, Cheol-min has emotionally severed ties with the rest of humanity. That is, until visually impaired Jeong-hwa (Han Hyo-joo) enters his booth to ‘watch’ a tv drama, under the impression that the former old employee was still in residence. Undeterred by the change, Jeong-hwa continues to ‘watch’ the drama with Cheol-min, becoming a regular rendezvous as he describes scenes for her enjoyment. As their relationship develops and Cheol-min’s icy exterior thaws, Jeong-hwa’s eyesight deteriorates further. Desperate for money to pay for an expensive operation for the woman who has restored his humanity, Cheol-min must come to terms with his past and enter the fighting arena once more.
Fans of the romance genre will undoubtedly be delighted with Always, as it conforms to all traditional conventions that categorize cinematic depictions of love and relationships. The film ticks all the boxes that are inherent to the genre – a couple meeting by chance; destiny intervening to push the couple together; a rugged, masculine male without emotion; a kind-hearted yet impaired beauty; lovers forced apart through unforeseen circumstances; climactically reuniting in a natural locale. Director Song Il-gon has incorporated every cliche at his disposal in creating a romantic love story.
However those very features are ultimately the film’s undoing as Always is very standard fare, never transcending or evolving traditional characters or narrative events to make the film unique or, at the very least, better than the myriad of similarly cliched romance films. Fans of auteur Song Il-gon have been quick to point out the intention of the abundance of cliches, producing an unabashedly commercial effort as his critically acclaimed filmography tends to be financially unsuccessful. If this rather cynical perspective has merit, then the director has succeed in his experiment as Always generated sales of over 1 million tickets and extended his fan base by targeting a slightly different demographic. Continuing such negative logic, perhaps the intention of the film is an indictment of audience’s sense of entertainment – predictable pleasures over artistic merit.
Regardless of supposed intentions, the cliches make for a satisfactory experience but by their very definition are overused and emphasise the contrived nature of the narrative. The romance between the leads – connoted as destined – requires several suspensions of disbelief. Otherwise, why a beautiful visually impaired woman would continue to enjoy a drama with a stranger in a parking lot booth is somewhat baffling. The regurgitation of cliches also exposes the film to inherent sexism as the rugged Cheol-min asserts his masculinity through removing Jeong-hwa’s independence. He provides money, takes care of his impaired lover, and performs DIY; she on the other-hand teaches him the value of emotions. In an incredibly bizarre and misogynistic scene in which Cheol-min rescues Jeong-hwa from rape by her manager, she chastises him for his involvement as she could lose her telemarketing job, forcing Cheol-min to become a care-taker and accept Jeong-hwa as his responsibility.
The combined star power of So Ji-sub and Han Hyo-joo certainly added to the expectation and commercial success of Always, and both perform competently in their roles. Due to the contrived nature of the narrative however, limitations are heavily imposed and often they are featured merely to appear attractive, or attractive-yet-sad.
So Ji-sub’s role is odd as retired Mixed Martial Artist Cheol-min, as the sport is only sporadically alluded to in the first two acts yet becomes of vital importance in the third. The profession notwithstanding, So Ji-sub is never fully convincing as a champion as the absence of focus and dedication, as well as his ill-matched musculature and prowess, combine to detrimental effect. Yet in conveying thawing stoic masculinity So Ji-sub excels, and is compelling as a former villain attempting to change his future through love.
Similarly, Han Hyo-joo is exemplary in such dramatic scenes conveying sincerity and romance in the majority of scenes. The sweet and positive nature of her character are constantly emphasized, making Jeong-hwa a highly likable protagonist. Where Han Hyo-joo stalls is in the performance of visual impairment. The year’s other big film concerning the disability, Blind, featured actress Kim Ha-neul conveying a competent performance through the daily struggles she endured and overcame; Han Hyo-joo is much weaker in this regard, seemingly traversing mountainous terrain with ease yet unable to unblock a drain situated next to her.
As an addition to the romance genre, Always is an enjoyable and competent film that contains all the conventions inherent to the category. While fans of traditional romance may rejoice, the lack of cliche transcendence conveys the narrative and protagonists as highly contrived and unoriginal for audiences desiring a fresh interpretation. Intentional or otherwise, Always is, in its entirety, a entertaining cliche.