C’est Si Bon (쎄시봉) – ★★☆☆☆

C'est si bon (쎄시봉)

C’est si bon (쎄시봉)

Twin Folio, the legendary ’60s duo that emerged from Seoul music cafe C’est Si Bon, is due to be the subject of a television show. Yet when music producer Lee Jang-hee, the man responsible for their creation, is quizzed about the rumour of an original third member, he begins to reminisce about the era. Back in the ’60s, C’est Si Bon was the hottest place in the city to listen to folk song competitions. With his silky voice Yun Hyeong-ju (Kang Ha-neul (강하늘) was the star of the cafe, until newcomer Song Chang-sik (Jo Bok-rae (조복래) instigates a rivalry. With their clashing egos a duo would be impossible, and as such Jang-hee (Jin Goo (진구) enlists talented country boy Oh Gun-tae (Jeong Woo (정우) to make a trio. Their inability to work together changes when beautiful aspiring actress Min Ja-yeong (Han Hyo-joo (한효주) enters the club, inspiring them to collaborate and become one of the most successful bands of the era.

The original trio learn to collaberate due to their muse Ja-yeong

The original trio learn to collaberate due to their muse Ja-yeong

C’est Si Bon is something of a love letter to the vibrant music scene of 1960s/70s Seoul, one that attempts to capture the spirit of the era through the story of the renowned cafe. Generally it succeeds, particularly in the opening act as there is much enjoyment to be had in witnessing the titular music arena being introduced, the band coming together and egos clashing. The C’est Si Bon cafe is a wonderfully charismatic and dynamic place due to some quite lovely set and costume design, helmed competently by director Kim Hyeon-Seok (김현석) who is likely hoping for the same success as his prior romantic endeavour Cyrano Agency.

Yet following an enjoyable 30 minutes, the film eschews the fun and vitality of the music scene to descend into a cliched romantic tale. As the members of the band all fall in love with Ja-yeong and attempt to out-perform each other to win her affection, the story moves away from the enjoyment of the band’s origins to become a standard rom-com. To be fair to Han Hyo-joo, she is absolutely stunning throughout and has rarely looked better, however due to the focus applied to her as the muse of so many admirers, C’est Si Bon consistently feels like a vanity project for the actress. Ironically however, as Ja-yeong tends to use and manipulate the men in her life as they constantly try to impress her, the result is an attractive but not a particularly likeable lead female protagonist which significantly lessens the romantic appeal.

Ja-yeong is the muse of seemingly everyone at music cafe C'est Si Bon

Ja-yeong is the muse of seemingly everyone at music cafe C’est Si Bon

Recently in Korean cinema a greater number of films are being produced with older audiences in mind which is welcome news for diversity, and C’est Si Bon fits neatly within the paradigm. Yet the film also perpetuates the disturbing trend of romanticising Korea’s totalitarian past. Curfews, police brutality and authoritarianism, and even scenes of intimidation reminiscent of prelude to torture, feature within the narrative. However due to the romantic-comedy contrivances of the film such issues are presented as nostalgia, alarmingly either employed for humour or simply glossed over.

Things change from bad to worse for C’est Si Bon in the final act through the inclusion of scenes set in America, years after the rise and fall of the famous cafe. Apart from feeling acutely tacked on and frankly dull, the sequences are unintentionally, and quite literally, laughable. For instance, during highly emotional scenes between veteran actors Kim Hee-ae and Kim Yoon-seok are some incredibly poorly timed interludes by bad American actors that simply destroy all tension and instead generate laughter. As such, C’est Si Bon ends on a sour note, despite the initial enjoyment and promise displayed in the first act.

Years after the rise and fall of the cafe, Geun-tae performs in America

Years after the rise and fall of the cafe, Geun-tae performs in America

Verdict:

C’est Si Bon is a love letter to the vibrant music scene that existed in Korea in the 1960s, with a particularly enjoyable first act that introduces the styles and catchy music of the era, as well as the formation of the band Twin Folio. Yet director Kim Hyeon-seok’s film oddly eschews such promise by later descending into bland rom-com cliches and romanticising Korea’s totalitarian past, before ending with an unintentionally funny and quite poor finale.

★★☆☆☆

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Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – ★★★★☆

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Life is good for single mother Hyeon-sook (Kim Hee-ae (김희애) and her two teenage daughters Man-ji (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) and Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기). Despite the financial hardships of living in a single parent household, the three are like any other typical family. That is, until the day Cheon-ji commits suicide. Devastated by the loss, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji move to a new home and attempt to start afresh. Yet as Man-ji begins to think more and more about her younger sister’s death, as well as the lack of a suicide note, she becomes driven to find the cause behind Cheon-ji’s suffering. As she  questions those close to Cheon-ji, including best friends Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jeong (김유정) and Mi-ran (Yoo Yeon-mi (유연미), Man-ji starts to unravel the elegant lies involved and begins to understand that she may not have known her younger sister as well as she previously thought.

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – or directly translated as ‘Elegant Lies’ – is a powerfully compelling and tender family drama by director Lee Han (이한) and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon (이숙연). It is a well-documented fact that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest amongst the countries in the OECD – and in particular it’s the leading cause of death amid the younger generations – yet while several films have explored the issue from the perspective of those suffering from depression, Thread of Lies approaches the topic quite differently. By exploring the situation from the view of a family struggling to come to terms with loss, the film effectively captures not only the trauma and guilt generated by losing a loved one to suicide but notably how it’s possible to live with someone and not truly know who they are. Director Lee beautifully conveys the complexity of emotions and relationships in the aftermath of loss with acute sincerity, while also subtly intertwining a critique on the notion of pretense in Korean society. Falsity is presented through a heartbreaking scene in which Cheon-ji arrives late to a birthday party and is bullied on kakao messenger service, within her view and by people claiming to be her friends, and is superbly contrasted with a scene depicting her mother being forced to practice customer service and etiquette at a supermarket. Thread of Lies examines the various ways in which people in contemporary Korea are forced to subsume their true emotions for socially acceptable ones, yet director Lee also superbly manages to balance such weighty material with tasteful light-hearted comedy, infusing the story with positivity and hope as well as tender poignancy .

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Outcast Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Thread of Lies is in many ways an examination of guilt, and the lies told in order to assuage it. Older sister Man-ji is cool to the point of arrogant, yet in her quest to discover Cheon-ji’s motivations she uncovers a web of depression, pain, and half-truths that fundamentally change her, and as such her development into a more mature and aware young woman is a deeply affecting journey. The conversations Man-ji has with Cheon-ji’s classmates Hwa-yeon and Mi-ran are incredibly illuminating, as the young girls reveal a history of bullying and psychological abuse yet desperately remove any notion of their role in the lead up to the suicide. Their interactions are brilliantly contrasted with the truth via flashback scenes depicting the events as they occurred, revealing the full impact of wrongdoing on the young and sensitive Cheon-ji. Director Lee effectively employs such moments to reveal that blame lies not with one singular person, but with a large number of people who are all culpable in the build-up to suicide as they thoughtlessly mistreat those around them. As such, Thread of Lies is a socially-conscious, poignant and sincere examination of a timely issue, and is an exemplary piece of filmmaking.

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Verdict:

Thread of Lies is a powerful and compelling family drama that deals with the aftermath of suicide. Director Lee Han captures the complex emotional and relationship issues within Lee Sook-yeon’s script with sincerity and tenderness, as Man-ji attempts to understand her younger sister’s death. Featuring an exemplary examination of the guilt and lies associated with suicide, and cultural existence of pretense within contemporary Korean society, Thread of Lies is a fascinating and empowering exploration of a timely issue.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews