Hee-yong (played by Hong Hee-yong) and Seong-cheol (played by Baek Seung-chul) are a couple of forty-something bums who never really figured out what to do with themselves. In case the lazy naming didn't tip you off, "Gi-Hwa" is the kind of film that mostly comes from experience. Most film directors don't live a flashy high life, and I'm willing to bet that Moon Jeong-yun came up with the core concept for the film upon realizing that some people never really grow up.
In this way "Gi-Hwa" is kind of a low-class Hong Sang-soo joint- as in, low social class, not low quality. The only real glaring mistake Hee-yong made in life was fathering Gi-hwa (played by Kim Hyun-jin) when Hee-yong himself has almost no parenting instinct. Seong-cheol is slightly better along these lines, but still not exactly great. The attempts of the older men to cheer Gi-hwa up are of mixed success. Partially this is just because, unless the gang's stuck in the middle of nowhere, it's pretty easy for Gi-hwa to catch a glimpse of children who have had actual good parenting.
I make the Hong Sang-soo comparison because "Gi-Hwa" is most obviously be a comedy in spite of the obviously dispiriting nature of the actual story. Hee-yong has somehow managed to make a lot of friends over the years who haven't realized what a broken pathetic man Hee-yong is. He's not even very charming or persuasive. It's just that everyone tries to live on in the memory of the good old days, completely forgetting the fact that the good old days actually kind of sucked.
It's a comically grim realization to see that for Gi-hwa himself this whole trip will probably turn into that same happy memory, even though Hee-yong frequently demonstrates the kind of poor decision-making skills that probably resulted in Gi-hwa falling into the wrong crowd and getting tossed into jail in the first place. In real life, there's no heartfelt talk-to-talks or wise or reasoned character development. Short of blatant melodrama people just are what they are.
I wouldn't hold it against anyone for disliking "Gi-Hwa"- the film quite explicitly has no real point save for the occasional joke. Overall it's really just a reminder that hey, things could have gone worse. Obviously things could have gone a lot better but sometimes those just aren't the choices that end up getting made. In any given Hong Sang-soo movie there are characters about as unaware of themselves as Hee-yong and Seong-cheol. The main difference is they had the good luck to born into families that could afford an erudite education.
Truthfully I dislike making the Hong Sang-soo comparison so much- goodness knows Moon Jeong-yun has his own distinctive, rustic filmmaking style, with a clear emphasis on events, cinematography and facial expressions rather than dialogue. In terms of effect, though, "Gi-Hwa" is the kind of comedic anti-introspective film that's most likely to have crossover appeal with those familiar with the more famous director's work. While I enjoyed "Gi-Hwa" it is, for better or worse, very much filmmaking in the independent mold.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Gi-Hwa""
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