Jae-pil is about to have the worst Sunday of his life. From the moment the hapless salaryman wakes up in a grotty motel, he is beset by a host of problems – his bullying manager demands Jaepil ‘massage’ some figures or else lose his job; his estranged wife begins divorce proceedings while filing for custody of their daughter Soo-in; his nagging sister is demanding money to donate to her church; and he has just become the prime suspect in a murder case. One thing’s for sure – this Sunday is going to be hell.
A humorously dark tale, director Kim Byung-june’s Ordinary People is an entertaining slice of ironic satire that pokes fun at the insane challenges of the everyday salaryman. Striking the tone just right during the first half, the film spirals into theatrical silliness in the second, subverting the intelligent mockery for obvious gags.
Aside from a rather oddly dramatic preface during the opening credits, Ordinary People begins in promising fashion as director Kim explores the insanity within the mundane tasks bestowed upon the middle-aged Korean office worker. Using central protagonist Jae-pil as a cypher, he piles on the absurd stresses such employees endure with an impressively dark and often subtle wit, balancing the tone well between realism and farce as Jae-pil is pushed to breaking point. The title perfectly reflects director Kim’s brand of humour – these characters and events are indeed ‘ordinary’ in the lives of many Koreans yet there is a comedic ridiculousness to it all that he works hard to emphasise.
However, just as with this year’s other darkly satirical film (and Jeonju Film Festival winner) Alice in Earnestland, Ordinary People takes an ill-advised turn at the halfway mark. Through a misunderstanding in an apparent murder case Jae-pil is considered a suspect, from which the events and characters all suddenly descend into farcical comedy the likes of which wouldn’t be out of place on a Korean ‘gag concert’ TV show. The dry and ironic humour of the first hour comes undone as the Jae-pil’s situation comes increasingly ludicrous and the acting evermore theatrical, culminating in the eye-rolling introduction of colourful chubby gangster trio the Bear Brothers. Director Kim is certainly aware as his protagonists recount how bizarre the events have become, yet it continues to escalate until the film reaches its overly long conclusion with trite melodrama.
While the introduction to the characters and their relationships are in need of tightening, both Jae-pil and his sister are great devices through which to explore the stresses of contemporary Koreans. Jae-pil is a likeable protagonist and one who the audience genuinely want to succeed despite his occasionally frustrating whiny impotence to his problems. His sister, however, is largely pushed to the margins of the story, a real missed opportunity as her role as an intelligent journalist who quit due to marriage could have provided further great ironic satire from a female perspective, as well as offered a fun counterpoint to Jae-pil’s misadventures.
Director Kim Byung-june’s Ordinary People begins in darkly satirical fashion through ironic jokes at an average salaryman’s expense, yet following such a promising opening the film missteps into absurd theatrical comedy at the halfway point before ending with trite melodrama. Yet the potential displayed in the first half means Kim’s future films are ones to watch out for.