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'Hwang' Is Lovely But Lackluster

2007/05/24 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

"Hwang Jin Yi" delivers a novel interpretation of one of the most celebrated women in the Joseon Kingdom era (1392-1910), but shines just dimly on the silver screen. The shortcomings of the highly anticipated film regrettably eclipse its unique plot, all-star cast and crew, and grand-scale production.

The film traces the life of Hwang Jin Yi, a 16th century gisaeng - a female entertainer-artist similar to the Japanese geisha - remembered as both a distinguished poet and alluring femme fatale.

Born into a respected noble family, the charming Hwang leads a peaceful life in the city of Songdo. But when her scandalous birth secrets are revealed, she voluntarily chooses the lowly life of a gisaeng.

Hwang, brought to life by Song Hye-kyo, evolves from an innocent damsel to smoldering temptress. Song gives an impressive performance of her character's winding emotional journey, and breaks away from her image as a sweet-faced starlet.

"Hwang" is original in both senses of the word. The film portrays not so much the artistic gisaeng we saw hitherto in other works, but the human Hwang based on the novel of the same title by North Korean writer Hong Seok-jung.

Hong conducted thorough research in the gisaeng's hometown of Gaeseong, and his heroine is considered to most closely reflect the actual historical figure. From there, he created a fictional love story and won the 2004 Manhae Prize for Literature, one of the most prestigious literary awards in South Korea.

In the film, Hwang spurns the decadence and hypocrisy of the noble class, and lives with a sense of independence that women today can look up to. But beneath her confidence and indifference, Hwang is a heartbroken woman torn between her lover Nomi, played by heartthrob Yoo Ji-tae, and the powerful district magistrate Hui-yeol, impersonated by Ryu Seung-ryong.

With four years of groundwork, seven months in the making and 10 billion won in production costs, the film breaks ground in Korean cinema by crossing the 38th Parallel down and over.

The finale, shot in North Korea's Mt. Baekdu, is breathtaking, and action sequences are dynamic. But the director tried to pack too much into the film, and the result is a convoluted mess that is less than compelling.

Less is more. Had the focus been mainly on the tragic sentimental cord between the star-crossed lovers, the film could have been touching rather than tedious.

Director Jang Yoon-hyeon is renowned for "The Contact" (1997), which remapped the Korean romance genre, and "Tell Me Something" (1999), a hallmark of hardcore thrillers.

But "Hwang", the filmmaker's first period piece, falls to provide something completely fresh. Costumes by Jung Ku-ho are devoid of classic crimson hues and do mark a departure from conventional period pieces.

But the art director of top brand KUHO had previously designed for "Untold Scandal" (2003, starring Bae Yong-joon), and already presented his neutral palette of dark green, rich chocolate and beige.

The heroine's black lace hats, sheer hanbok tops and bejeweled wigs are modernly chic and fabulously haute couture. But Hwang seems more like a lost runway model wandering the streets of a Korean folk village, than a fashionable gisaeng.

Although Jung imaginatively recreates 16th century fashion with a 21st century edge, the attempt fails to shine through.

"Hwang Jin Yi", along with upcoming film "May 18", was noted as a major film project of the season. As follow-ups to domestic mega hits "The King and the Clown" (2005) and "The Host" (2006), the two were to save home ground from a strong lineup of foreign blockbusters such as "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" and "Shrek the Third".

Although "Hwang" falls a bit short of great expectations, hopefully "May 18" will follow through.

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