Steamy thriller Perfect Proposal – or more literally translated as Secret Temptation – has received an English subtitled trailer ahead of its June 4th release date in Korea.
Based on French novel “La Femme de paille” (Woman of Straw) by Catherine Arley, the scandalous story depicts an ambitious young man (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) attempting to scheme a fortune from his sickly uncle (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), enlisting the help of an attractive yet heavily-indebted woman (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) to do so. If she can marry the old man and manipulate him into changing his will so that she inherits his fortune, the pair will be rich forever more. Yet things don’t turn out as planned.
Director Yoon Jae-goo (윤재구), who previously helmed Secret (2009) and wrote Seven Days (2007), adapted the screenplay as well as taking the megaphone, and it will be interesting to see how he has interpreted such thrillingly seductive source material.
Perfect Proposal also signifies the return of actress Im Soo-jeong after a three year absence from the big screen, and playing a particularly different role from her last outing in Everything About My Wife.
Three years have passed since the death of the king, and with the mourning period now officially over the new monarch (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) commissions a special new dragon robe from royal tailor Jo Dol-seok (Han Seok-Kyu (한석규). Having crafted royal attire for 30 years, commoner Dol-seok is on the verge of becoming a nobleman, the reward for a lifetime of service. Yet the abrupt arrival of new and highly sought after tailor Gong-jin (Ko Soo (고수), with his fancy contemporary designs and custom-made fittings, place Dol-seok’s position in jeopardy. Animosity between the two arises when the queen (Park Shin-hye (박신혜) announces her need for a tailor and Gong-jin is presented with the task, however the young upstarts disregard for the Confucian rules of the time may well spell trouble.
Dol-seok has crafted royal attire for 30 years and is finally on the verge of nobility
The Royal Tailor is a vibrant and unique addition to the Korean period drama canon, one that is consistently visually stimulating and bustling with ideas yet one which is also often directionless.
Director Lee Won-seok (이원석) and cinematographer Kim Ji-young deserve praise for crafting such a distinctive and striking film. The beautiful assortments of colour that permeate scenes featuring tailory are truly gorgeous, often combining with a keen sense of symmetry that makes The Royal Tailora real treat for the eyes. The variation of such impressive colours and designs applied to hanbok also make the drama a fitting tribute to the traditional attire, revering it both as iconic as well as a symbol of cultural elegance.
One of the great strengths of The Royal Tailor, and one that makes it so entertaining, is the progressive attitude laced throughout the narrative which is often expressed through hanbok itself. Through the distinctly Korean conflict between traditionalist Dol-seok and the actions of rebellious contemporary Gong-jin, the period tale seeks to poke fun at the Confucian ideals of the era, employing fashion and feminist issues to push the boundaries of oppression. Rather controversially for a film set in such an era, director Lee provocatively conveys that strict adherence to tradition halts development even at the most basic level – a scene in which actor Ma Dong-seok parades like a peacock in his latest hanbok while his sleeves are too long to pour and consume beverages is frankly hilarious – and conveys the playfully nature in which he mocks and scrutinises the rigidity of the time.
Through colourful stylish hanbok, rebellious tailor Gong-jin pushes Confucian boundaries
Director Lee infuses The Royal Tailor with an energetic flamboyance reminiscent of his excellent prior rom-com How To Use Guys With Secret Tips, yet perhaps due to Secret Tips‘ modest returns and/or the conventions of the period film, he appears to lack the confidence to fully commit to his whimsically comedic vision here. Instead he injects his unique flair through a handful of select scenes which are hit-and-miss, as the film flits between typical genre fare and more surrealist postmodern sensibilities, resulting in a film which has something of an identity crisis. This is a quite unfortunate as director Lee is one of the more unique talents to emerge from the industry in recent years, and seeing his aesthetics restrained is a real shame.
The drama also suffers in a narrative sense due to the lack of characterisation and the absence of a strong trajectory. The protagonists, and the story, tends to meander and while the situations and debates that arise are entertaining, the film feels directionless and in need of a more defined central plot. As such the actors are under-utilised, particularly Park Shin-hye who suffers the most in this regard as there is little for her to do other than appear sad and pretty.
Yet The Royal Tailor ends with a surprisingly potent finale, one which directly challenges the very concept of history and leaves a particularly lasting impression. In forcing audiences to question the very foundations of their national and cultural identity, director Lee makes a bold statement that the past and the truth are not always the same.
In the conflict between traditional and progressive, how is history created?
The Royal Tailor is a unique and vibrant period drama by director Lee Won-Seok who comedically uses the fashion of the era to mock and push the oppressive boundaries of Confucian norms. While the use of colour is a visual treat and the film is infused with a handful of wonderfully whimsical scenes, The Royal Tailor is often directionless due to issues with the narrative and characterisation. Yet the drama ends on a high note that examines the concept of history and as such The Royal Tailor leaves a lasting impression.
In 2004, Korean doctor Hwang Woo-suk published that he, along with his team of researchers, had successfully cloned a human embryo and were able to remove stem cells from it. The revelation rocked the scientific community as the breakthrough was the first of its kind, yet it was surpassed only a year later when Hwang claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cells. As such, Hwang and his team had the ability to work on remedies for diseases previously believed to be incurable, catapulting the doctor into the limelight as a national hero and a savior of the Korean economy. Except that, as an investigation in 2006 by MBC reporters revealed, it was all a lie. Despite the evidence however, many Koreans still believe that doctor Hwang is the ‘pride of Korea’, and that to question his work is unpatriotic.
Whistle Blower (제보자), by director Lim Soon-rye (임순례) and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong (이춘형), is based on the scandalous affair that caused international embarrassment for the Korean scientific community. The thriller focuses on investigative journalist Min-cheol (Park Hae-il (박해일) as he is tipped off about the stem cell hoax by whistle blower Min-ho (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석). Joining forces with intrepid young reporter I-seul (Song Ha-yoon (송하윤), the duo begin digging into the claims of Doctor Lee Jang-hwan (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), and uncover a series of shocking revelations while also contending with angry Korean citizens.
Producer Min-cheol interviews whistle blower Min-ho, who claims to have knowledge of a national scandal
Given the electrifying and scandalous subject material, the potential for a explosive and culturally resonating conspiracy thriller was high. Yet with Whistle Blower director Lim and screenwriter Lee have crafted a standard effort, one that is competent and ticks all the boxes of the genre yet is uninspired and barely scratches the surface of the core issues with which the film is concerned.
The true-life crime features not only a hoax on an international scale, but the collusion of the then-government and media in both propelling the fraud into the national consciousness as well as stifling the investigation into it, while the zealous nationalistic fervor of the populace offers potent introspective exploration. Such issues are depicted in a very limited capacity or completely omitted altogether which is more than a little disappointing, and while watching Whistle Blower the sense that the filmmakers were censored as much as the characters within the film adds an acute sense of irony.
Where Whistle Blower succeeds is through the journey of producer Min-cheol, as he attempts to uncover evidence to support his case against Dr. Lee. Director Lim does well in representing the variety of obstacles in his path and paces the story well, resulting in a thriller that moves along briskly and is rarely dull. The various tip offs continually spur interest while the back room politics within the station add an additional threat of urgency, as well as hinting at the larger scale corruption of Korean conglomerates.
Producer Min-cheol and intrepid assistant I-seul uncover the evidence
Park Hae-il is in typically good form as the investigative producer, though as there is little in the way of character development the role is far from demanding. He works best when playing off of the supportive cast, particularly his intrepid assistant I-seul and team leader Seong-ho, played by Song Ha-yoon and Park Won-sang (박원상) respectively. Despite their limited presence throughout the film both Song and Park are highly charismatic, endearing protagonists, giving impressive performances and often steal the show whenever they are on screen.
Ironically whistle blower Min-ho is given very little screen-time and development that mostly requires actor Yoo to walk around appearing pitiful, with the narrative largely focusing – repetitively – on his and wife Mi-hyeon’s (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong (류현경) sick child. This is a great shame and a missed opportunity given that that real whistleblower is still considered something of a traitor by many in contemporary Korea. Luckily however, actress Ryoo provides the best performance in the film despite her extremely limited presence, making the situation one possible to invest in.
Interestingly, the filmmakers have opted to represent the fraudulent Dr. Lee in a rather positive, sympathetic light. The narrative seeks to portray the doctor less as a criminal, and more of a man whose ambition to help both the sick and Korea at large got the better of him. There are occasional hints at his manipulative genius, yet the story doesn’t delve deeper into the illegalities outside of the fabricated stem cell research, which is truly bizarre and a waste of potential.
The reporters must contend with rampant nationalism in their quest to expose the truth
Given the scandalous true story on which the film is based, Whistle Blower had the potential to be an explosive thriller and a keen exploration of a variety of facets in contemporary Korean culture. Yet director Lim Soon-rye and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong have produced a standard, uninspired example of the genre, one which fulfills the criteria but never delves deeply into the issues of the time. Whistle Blower is competent yet disappointing, and is a real missed opportunity.
Fairy tales, when filmed by a director of vision, can be astounding cinematic endeavours. The universe(s) constructed in depicting such fables highlight the stylization, compositional competence, and sense of colour and light of the person at the helm. Yet what truly makes a classic cinematic fairy tale is the morality tale within, the vital life lessons that occur in the evolution of a child into an adult. The shattering of innocence by the harsh outside world and the often problematic romance of the central heroine/hero add layers of tragedy that ground the fantastical narrative into relatable, almost nostalgic, material for audiences. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, for example, deftly combines the fantasy worlds, socio-cultural critique, and pure romance within his stunning directorial style, a feat which he has never managed to replicate.
A Werewolf Boy (늑대소년) has a lot in common with Edward Scissorhands thematically, but is it’s own unique entity due to the phenomenal visual style of writer/director Jo Sung-hee (조성희). His compositional style, choice of camera shots and angles, and keen eye for colour and lighting make A Werewolf Boy a truly gorgeous visual experience that wonderfully serves to emphasize the mixture of surrealism, horror and romance within the story. That said, the development of certain characters – notably the werewolf boy himself – as well as pacing issues and ambiguous resolution(s) detract from an otherwise sumptuously romantic fairy tale.
As an old woman living in America, Su-ni receives a phone call about the sale of a countryside house her family own. Returning to Korea and visiting the abode with her granddaughter, Su-ni begins to reminisce about the events that occurred there in her youth. The young Su-ni (Park Bo-yeong (박보영) and her family move to the country manner due to her ill health, yet the young girl is also suffering from depression. During unpacking, Su-ni discovers a feral boy, hungry and dirty and in need of care. While waiting for a suitable place to send him, the family take him in and name him Cheol-su (Song Joong-ki (송중기). Initially hesitant, Su-ni begins to train Cheol-su like a dog, bringing the pair closer together. Yet her growing affection for the werewolf boy is noticed by spoilt rich-kid Ji-tae (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) who desires Su-ni for himself, and begins to plot his rival’s downfall.
The werewolf boy Cheol-su is found stalking the grounds
As per fairy tale requirements, A Werewolf Boy is bookended by scenes featuring Su-ni as an old woman reminiscing about the past and caught in the moral dilemma of putting that time behind her. Director Jo Sung-hee presents these sequences with a stark realism, draining the colour from the landscape and effectively conveying the area as decrepit and lacking. The juxtaposition between the bookends and the central nostalgic tale is enormous, with the warm colourful hues wonderfully conveying the happiness and magic of Su-ni’s childhood. Indeed, even the colours of the decor and costumes worn by the protagonists reflect the romanticism of the time, while the wondrous use of light breaking through clouds, windows and doors is often beautiful to behold. Combined with the excellent composition and keen sense of space, as well as intriguing camera shots, A Werewolf Boy often appears as if from a painting or illustrated novel, and is quite breathtaking. Scenes such as Su-ni’s discovery of Cheol-su’s dark, shadowy cage is presented in eerie symmetry adding genuine thrills and horror, contrasted with the romantic hues of the children playing football on a hilltop during sunset. A Werewolf Boy is an incredible showcase of the director’s visual style.
The narrative is in-keeping with the visuals through the whimsical romantic tale between Su-ni and Cheol-su, developing their innocent love naturally through an assortment of comical and emotional scenes. There are also elements of fun silliness to the proceedings with Cheol-su as a half-man/half-wolf which are a natural fit within the sub-genre, but may turn some audiences off. Yet this conveys the sense that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, adding a light-hearted approach amongst the variety of fairy tale attributes it contains. The fanciful nature does mean however that the impact of social critiques of the ignorance towards war orphans and governmental responsibility are somewhat undermined for the sake of brevity, with the farcical nature of officials belying their statuses as the real monsters within society.
Su-ni and Cheol-su become closer
Yet the real ‘monster’ within A Werewolf Boy is spoilt wannabe tycoon Ji-tae, superbly performed by Yoo Yeon-seok. His interpretation of the villainy and arrogance of Ji-tae is incredibly compelling, while his dark clothes and over-zealous yuppie fashion style contribute greatly to the characterisation. Ji-tae’s lust for Su-ni and jealousy regarding Cheol-su forges the classic love triangle at the center of the narrative. Yet this area features one of the film’s biggest weaknesses, as while Su-ni and Ji-tae are developed well the same cannot be said for werewolf boy Cheol-su, perplexing given his status as the titular character. While Su-ni’s innocence and compassion – wonderfully conveyed by Park Bo-yeong – are tested and strengthened, and Ji-tae’s bitterness and resentment grow and fester, Cheol-su generally continues to growl and appear sorrowful. Song Joong-ki does well in expressing emotional distress without the aid of language, yet his role is highly limited within the narrative which is a source of frustration. This underdevelopment, which is also applicable to the (all-too-brief) government officials, results in a finale that is not as strong as it could have been in terms of both romanticism and symbolism. That said, it is during the resolution that Cheol-su finally takes center stage and attempts to fulfill his potential, yet the film is very much Su-ni’s and it is a delight to see a narrative structured around an interesting and fun female protagonist.
The villainous Ji-tae plots his rival’s downfall
A Werewolf Boy is a beautifully shot, visually stunning fairy tale and a genuine testament to writer/director Jo Sung-hee’s style. The use of colour, lighting and composition work harmoniously together in conveying a wondrous nostalgic tale of innocence and love, ably performed by the cast. While certain protagonists are a tad underdeveloped, A Werewolf Boy is an engaging, highly enjoyable and delightful fable.
For any independent film maker, getting the project off the ground is a daunting task. While the freedom from studios is enviable, the production costs have the potential to escalate due to an incredible variety of external factors. Having a established actor/actress is therefore something of a coup, often guaranteeing both finance and audience revenue. Interesting then, that writer/director Min Yong-geun (민용근) intentionally chose not to cast any renowned stars in his second feature length film Re-encounter (혜화,동), rather allowing for the narrative to be the centerpiece.
Hye-hwa (Yoo Da-in (유다인) works for a canine veterinary surgery in a small rustic town. During the day she often visits the abandoned and dilapidated area on the outskirts of town where feral dogs roam, in a bid to save and treat them before they are caught by a cruel dog-napper. That is, until she surprisingly re-encounters ex-boyfriend Han-soo (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석). Han-soo informs Hye-hwa that the child they had together years earlier, and believed to be dead, is actually alive and has been adopted. Forced to face the pain of her past, Hye-hwa’s life becomes increasingly fraught with the stress of who she is, and who she feels she ought to be.
Hye-hwa (혜화) helps stray dogs in the barren landscape
Director Min Yong-geun (민용근) has constructed a a very delicately paced drama, and wonderfully conveys Hye-hwa’s life as lonely and fragile. As she walks through the desolate landscape of abandoned buildings and feral animals, Hye-hwa is actually allegorically exploring the fragments of her consciousness which has never healed following the traumatic loss of her baby. Similarly, her passionate desire to find and treat the sick dogs in the area are the result of Hye-hwa’s inability to cope with her loss, chasing the helpless inside her psychosis as she desperately tries to exert control over the one thing she can never rectify. If all this sounds like an enormous burden, it is; the large red muffler that Hye-hwa wears is symbolic of the enormous strain she ‘wears’ day after day that weighs her down and threatens to engulf her.
Min Yong-geun also interrogates the root of Hye-hwa’s neurosis, highlighting the archaic notion of ‘the family unit’ in Korean culture as the cause of disruption. As Hye-hwa and Han-soo were only (unmarried) teenagers at the time of pregnancy, the families of both intervened and removed the decision process from the parents-to-be. Spiraling out this domineering attitude are two psychologically and emotionally scarred young people, and the director expertly conveys their trauma through the subtle use of the mise-en-scene and slow pacing.
The trauma of the young couple is expertly conveyed through the mise-en-scene
The decision to use non-prolific actors is an interesting one and serves the narrative well, adding a shade more realism than more renowned counterparts. Yoo Da-in gives an incredibly restrained and subtle performance, and fully deserves her nomination for ‘Best Actress’ at the 32nd Blue Dragon Film Awards. Her expression of conflict as she cannot part with her cut nails is poignant and moving, as is her inability to recognise her underlying neurosis but determination to continue a ‘normal’ life. Yoo Yeon-seok fares less well, and while his performance is competent it fails to attract the same level of empathy as his love interest. This is perhaps unfair as this is also due to the significantly less screen-time he is provided, as the narrative belongs to the emotional turmoil of Hye-hwa.
Yoo Da-in (유다인) gives a subtle and poignant performance
Re-encounter is a thought provoking and restrained exploration of how trauma becomes a part of a person’s character when not confronted. It is incredibly slow-paced as director Min Yong-geun establishes his protagonists through imagery, which is something of a double-edged sword; while the mise-en-scene is expertly crafted, the characterization suffers slightly through the lack of interaction with others. But then, in highlighting their loneliness, Min Yong-geun emphasizes that such reconciliation is the fundamental way in which to begin healing trauma, and has crafted a touching humanist story in making such a statement.