Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) – ★★★★☆

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) is a wonderfully moving and understated short film, and certainly the best of director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) 2012 trilogy comprised of White Night (백야) and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). In each segment of the trilogy the theme of two men spending a prolonged period of time together in a day is explored, with Suddenly, Last Summer exploring this dynamic between thirty-something high school teacher Kyeong-hoon (경훈, Kim Yeong-jae (김영재) and student Sang-woo (상우, Han Joo-wan (한주완). Typically films that delve into such age and society-related relationships attempt to portray a morality tale of some sort, yet director Leesong eschews melodramatic cliches in order to convey a psychologically complex connection between the protagonists, emerging as a mature and thought-provoking examination on the subject.

Key to the potency of Suddenly, Last Summer is the manner in which director Leesong presents information about the relationship between Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo, and how such revelations develop their connection. Initially Sang-woo, an attractive young gay student, appears to be infatuated with the teacher, stalking him and making unfair demands. Yet as they engage in various conversations throughout the day, moments from the past are subtly referenced adding layers upon layers of complexity to their relationship, discussing and debating prior actions that may or may not have contained deeper meanings and the inferences generated from them. Director Leesong refuses to either condone or condemn the protagonists, instead opting to examine their internal struggles between desires as gay men and societal responsibilities.

The psychological complexities of he relationship are subtly explored

The psychological complexities of the relationship are subtly explored

Director Leesong’s films always display a keen artistic sensibility, and with Suddenly, Last Summer this most notably appears through the repetition of water imagery. In taking a river cruise in the popular Yeouido area, Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo open themselves to the tranquil beauty of the water, ebbing and flowing against a romantic-charged soundtrack. The blue tones of the Han River also work well in conjunction with the protagonists’ shirts. The pure white that envelops Sang-woo conveys his purity and innocence, his single-minded approach to life, yet Kyeong-hoon’s blue shirt connotes an older, more mature persona. The actors wonderfully articulate such sensibilities through their performances, with Kim Yeong-jae providing a highly effective and restrained performance as the morally-conflicted teacher, palpably displaying his discontent facially. Meanwhile Han Joo-wan connotes his youthful frustrations well, flitting between moments of maturity and adolescence in expressing his desires.

Despite their differing styles, both men clearly harbour a similar emotional discord which unites them, even though society states it is inappropriate. Their confusion is wonderfully articulated through the labyrinthine landscape of the apartment buildings, with the many twists and turns articulating their own psychological dilemmas. It is this moral and psychological complexity that makes Suddenly, Last Summer such a compelling film, and a welcome entry into Korean queer cinema.

Water imagery and colour play important roles in decoding the relationship

Water imagery and colour play important roles in decoding the relationship

Verdict:

Suddenly, Last Summer is a subtle and moving exploration of the relationship between a high school teacher and student. Director Leesong Hee-il delicately inserts information throughout that continually evolves the connection between them, challenging preconceptions while never adopting a moral position, and as such is the best film in the director’s 2012 trilogy.

★★★★☆

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Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Punch (완득이) – ★★★☆☆

Punch (완득이)

Punch (완득이)

The representation of those outside of ‘mainstream’ culture is often problematic within cinema. While their daily struggles against prejudice and other such conflicts are incredibly compelling, it is easy for protagonists to fall into the ‘pitiable’ category and thus undermine their accomplishments.

Punch (완득이) deftly sidesteps such narrative pitfalls with a wonderfully moving and charming story about those on the fringes of society, one that never patronizes those within and instead focuses on the three-dimensional features and ironies of their lives. In a culture – and national cinema – where physical appearance and financial stability are highly regarded, Punch is a refreshing and comical perspective on oft-ignored contemporary issues.

Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in (유아인) lives a troubled existence, failing at school and perpetually involved in fights. His father (Park Soo-young (박수영), a hunchback, is ridiculed for his appearance yet supports them as a dancer and entertainer with mentally ill ‘uncle’ Min-goo (Kim Yeong-jae (김영재). Yet the real bane of Wan-deuk’s life is his teacher Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석), who takes an active interest in the young man and encourages him to stretch and develop in ways unwanted. But when Wan-deuk’s estranged Filipino mother (Jasmine Lee (이쟈스민) arrives requesting time together, the young man is forced to mature and understand the complexities of those closest to him.

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Punch – an odd title considering the original is the lead protagonist’s name – succinctly and organically explores an array of societal issues without foregrounding any one in particular, nor ramming any ideological message into the audience. Instead, Punch eloquently depicts the story of a young man at the head of a makeshift and dysfunctional family, suffering from the idiosyncrasies of life on the poverty line with charismatic sincerity. Kim Dong-woo (김동우) has crafted a wonderfully character-driven script that makes it virtually impossible not to empathize with Wan-deuk and his coming-of-age story, which director Lee Han (이한) competently brings to life.

What makes Punch such an interesting and unique offering are the variety of characters within and the ways in which they strive to turn what mainstream society considers to be weaknesses into strengths. Wan-deuk is an incredibly conflicted young man; as a young boy he idolized his hunchback father for his dancing ability alongside his mentally ill ‘uncle’, tragically ignorant to the reality of the entertainment being provided. Without a mother figure in his life, Wan-deuk, his hero-turned-ridiculed father and his kind ‘uncle’ form a makeshift family, relying on the charity of others to live. Wan-deuk’s inner turmoil is wonderfully conveyed through his apathetic stance towards life, simultaneously a class clown and violently entering in fights even when outnumbered, making him likable and engaging. Wan-deuk’s teacher, Dong-joo, is a highly charismatic character with his own conflicts yet strives to find and encourage the potential within everyone around him, an unsung hero in a deprived community. Yet the characters only truly align with the introduction of Wan-deuk’s estranged mother, shocking him with her Filipino nationality and desire to reconnect. The cultural problem of importing wives from developing Asian countries has been slowly encroaching Korean national cinema for the past few years, yet none are as three-dimensional, nor approach the situation from the perspective of the women themselves, as within Punch. The focus on such disparate characters, and the humanity they exhibit and discover as they come together, is undoubtedly what makes the film is so entertaining and life-affirming.

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk's life more difficult

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk’s life more difficult

Yoo Ah-in gives a restrained performance as Wan-deuk, making the character likable with his irregular combination of dumb-struck apathy and belligerence. In lesser hands the role could have disintegrated into melodrama or portray his frustrations as disdainful, yet Yoo Ah-in balances the characterization well.

Yet by far the most engaging, comedic, and heart-warming protagonist is that of teacher Dong-joo, played by Kim Yoon-seok. The actor is wonderful in portraying the modest educator, doing so with sincerity, conviction, and with a great sense of comedic timing. His unorthodox style of teaching and encouraging students is humorous as well as unconventional, prompting his students to expand when others have given up. As such, Kim Yoon-seok forges his role into the soul of the film, with each layer of information revealed making him increasingly more charismatic and interesting.

If Dong-joo is the heart of the film then Wan-deuk’s mother, performed by Jasmine Lee, is the heart. Her introduction within the narrative is the catalyst for the disparate characters to bond together, and Jasmine Lee is excellent in conveying the sincerity of a mother wishing to reconnect with the son she abandoned. The actress performs the role with sincerity and integrity, forging sympathy with audiences yet never descends into pity, and her modesty and plight acutely reflects the difficulties faced by imported wives.

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Verdict:

Punch is a charming and heart-warming film about those on outside of ‘mainstream’ society and culture, made compelling by the wonderful characterization within. While the film may not push boundaries, the character-driven script features such an array of protagonists, issues and comedic idiosyncrasies that Punch becomes unique in its alternative perspective on a familial drama, and is highly entertaining.

★★★☆☆

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