Debuting at the 2012 Busan International Film Festival, and invited to the 2013 Rotterdam International Film Festival for its international premiere, independent drama Sunshine Boys (1999, 면회) has already garnered noteworthy attention and acclaim. Helmed by director Kim Tae-gon (김태곤), the story follows Sang-won (Shim Hee-seop (심희섭) and Seung-joon (Ahn Jae-hong (안재홍) as they embark on a road trip to visit pal Min-wook (Kim Chang-hwan (김창환), who is currently serving mandatory military service in Busan. As the three reunite for the first time since high school, they discover that events have changed them into quite different people than they remember. Learning about each other once more, the friends meet pretty tea house worker Mi-yeon (Kim Kkobbi (김꽃비) and the night unfolds in a different way than they planned.
Director Kim Tae-gon, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeon Go-woon, employs a social-realist aesthetic throughout the film that makes the encounters full of genuine tension and irony-fueled exchanges. The awkwardness between Sang-won and Seung-joon as they drive together is a mixture of comical and poignant as they attempt to rediscover each other, yet can only use their past as a basis. Similarly when Min-wook is reprimanded by a superior officer only slightly older than him, the results are uncomfortable yet humorous in the attempt to assert dominate masculinity amongst young men. Throughout, the director also employs filters that drain the color from the images, creating a bleak atmosphere that connotes the stage in which the threesome find themselves; victims of the Asian financial crisis of the late ’90s, all three friends are attempting to cope with their current situations that stand in stark contrast to the bright future promised from their days in high school.
As the emphasis is squarely placed on realism, it takes quite some time for the narrative to get moving, and for much of the opening Sunshine Boys is filled with awkward character moments rather than impetus. A catalyst does however arrive in the form of a letter from Min-wook’s girlfriend Esther stating her desire to break up, and who has charged Seung-joon with its delivery. Initially outraged, Sang-won and Seung-joon continually debate on whether they should hand over the letter and much of the story revolves around their indecision. Yet the film is very much Sang-won’s story as a shy and moderately gloomy university student who is forever changed by the events of the trip. The sullen young man hints at his problems without stating them outright, resulting in an often unemotional central protagonist but one that is easily relatable.
The real test for Sang-won arrives in the form of pretty tea house worker Mi-yeon, who invites him and his pals for a drink at her workplace. Director Kim Tae-gon does a great job of making the establishment foreboding with great use of lighting, isolating the tea house as disreputable, emphasizing the naivety of the young men who enter despite the warning signs. As they drink alcohol the protagonists loosen and they start to reveal more about their issues, granting greater insight into their insecurities and motivations. Yet it is Mi-yeon,wonderfully performed by Kim Kkobbi, that steals the limelight within Sunshine Boys as it is her character that provides compulsion for all involved with her suggestive smiles, probing questions and provocative body language. Mi-yeon is an intriguing character who is simultaneously innocent yet worldly-wise, attractive yet dangerous, and it is largely due to her that the film is so compelling.
Sunshine Boys is a highly interesting independent drama about three friends attempting to discover each other once again, after their lives have taken unexpected courses. Director Kim Tae-gon does a great job in featuring awkward, ironic moments in the lives of young men, which are granted extra potency with the application of social-realist aesthetics and drained color palette. The story does however take a very long time in establishing itself and as such the general sense of impetus suffers. Yet the wonderfully understated performance by Kim Kkobbi as Mi-yeon puts Sunshine Boys back on track, making the film an interesting journey of maturation.