Family, History Surface in `Underground'

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

With the two Korean leaders slated to meet for talks in late August, the release of the heartfelt drama "Underground Rendez-vous" is most timely. Free of political commentaries, the film celebrates universal values of love with a delightfully comical edge as it portrays a family forced to live under unnatural separation.

Set during the early 1980s, "Underground Rendez-vous" tells the hilarious story of Yeong-tan (Im Chang-jung), an aspiring schoolteacher who, caught along a series of mishaps, ends up teaching children in a small mountainous village. Meanwhile, the "real" teacher (Ryoo Seung-bum) who was supposed to move into town is trapped in the middle of nowhere, unable to move his right foot after stepping on a landmine.

All seems swell for Yeong-tan, and he even falls in love with an angelic beauty, Seon-mi (Park Jin-hee), the sister in law of the town chief (Im Hyun-sik). One day, Yeong-tan catches Seon-mi and the chief in an awkward moment, and being the Don Quixote he is, immediately proceeds to disclose the so-called incestuous scandal.

Over the course of his investigation, however, Yeong-tan discovers that Seon-mi lives in a town up north -- in North Korea. It turns out that 30 years before, the chief's family had been separated when they accidentally stood on the wrong side of the fence while the 38th parallel was being drawn.

However, the family members have been able to visit one another through an underground passage between the North's southernmost village and the South's northernmost village in North Chungcheong Province. But with authorities of both sides closing up on their clandestine rendez-vous, the family must risk everything to stay together.

"Korea is the sole country left with the problem of division, but the younger generation does not understand it very well", director Kim Jong-jin-II told reporters at a Seoul theater Tuesday. Kim, assistant director of comedies like "The Greatest Expectation" (2003) and "My Wife is a Gangster" (2001), makes his solo debut.

"I hope they will be able to learn about the separation as part of our history, why members of a family cannot live together while living in such proximity, and why the North and South have different political ideologies", he said.

The film transcends the basic premise of a typical family comedy by uniquely morphing itself into a period piece. The opening scene evokes Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" (2001) as military jets congest a swelling, ruby red sunset. Furthermore, the dichotomy between the airborne vessels and hanbok-clad characters is striking.

"Underground" vividly captures 1980s Seoul with police stations packed with student protesters, all the way back to a pivotal moment in Korean history when the Soviets (now Russia) and Americans drew the 38th parallel across the peninsula. But when a family inadvertently splits while helping the soldiers erect the fence, the situation turns absurdly comic -- it makes you wonder whether to laugh or cry.

Continuing the tradition of films like "Welcome to Dongmakgol" (2005), "Underground Rendez-vous" keeps the heavy theme afloat with tastefully orchestrated comic relief, provided by comedian actors who give life to charming characters. Im Chang-jung, the prince of Korean comedy with hits like "Sex Is Zero" (2003) under his belt, struts out his comic acts alongside veteran actors like Im Hyeon-shik ("200 Pounds Beauty", 2006).

The actors hit all the right notes, spicing up sappy moments here and there with witty lines. Park Jin-hee, the Korean Naomi Watts who is enjoying the peak of her acting career at a not very young age, also provides much laughter with her narcissistic character.

"Underground Rendez-vous" opens across theaters Aug. 15, a historic day when the two Koreas had celebrated -- as one -- their independence from Japan 62 years ago in 1945. The family comedy will capture hearts in tune with Korea's Independence Day, Gwangbokjeol, meaning "recapturing the light" in Korean.
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