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[MOVIE REVIEW]'Traces of Love' tackles triangular theme involving tragic disaster

2006/10/23 Source

"Trace of Love", which opens this weekend nationwide, has been promoted as a typical melodrama tailored along the sentimentality associated with autumn. That's why its Korean title is "Gaeulro", roughly translating into "Into the Fall".

But before plunging into this seemingly benign category, viewers have to deal with two other genres - a disaster theme and a road-trip (in fact, a highly sophisticated travel guide) theme - that bolster the high-profile opener at the Pusan International Film Festival which ended Friday.

With his cinematic sensibility and commercial potential widely recognized, director Kim Dae-seung attempts to mix all the three genres together in the hope of consolidating the three starkly different elements to provide a three-legged theme.

"Traces of Love", directed by Kim Dae-seung, attempts to uncover human relations buried under the rubble of the Sampoong Department Store disaster.
For the most part, the three legs move separately and viewers have to decide whether such cinematic device really works. The initial shocking development in the film, however, does not give viewers much time to ponder. On June 29, 1995, Hyun-woo (Yoo Ji-tae) is set to shop together with his fiancee Min-ju (Kim Ji-soo) for their much-anticipated wedding, and he asks her to wait for him at a nearby department store.

Min-ju, however, insists on waiting near the prosecutor's headquarters - a fleeting yet disturbing moment that highlights women's mysterious instincts for sensing danger. Eventually, she heads for the Sampoong Department Store, which is destined to cave in literally a couple of hours later.

The Sampoong disaster, a real tragedy in 1995, cost 502 innocent lives and wounded about 900 people - one of the most notorious examples of shoddy construction practices in Korea. In fact, the nation was in for another grossly man-made disaster - this time, it's a Han River bridge collapsing - before the scars left by the Sampoong disaster had time to completely heal.

Back to the movie, Hyun-woo is just about to cross the street to meet Min-ju but the department store suddenly begins to collapse. Terrific computer graphics recreate unbelievable images in a realistic and dramatic fashion.

Minutes before the actual collapse, the camera briefly shows department store officials hurriedly rushing out of the building, suggesting that they might have known about the possibility of the collapse in advance. Director Kim seems to raise the social issue about those irresponsible department store officials, but he doesn't go further.

Instead, Kim fast forwards Hyun-woo's life. He's now a ranking prosecutor and fighting against corrupt politicians who seemingly have taken bribes in return for business favors that involve, well, apartment complex construction.

Hyun-woo's life is far from glorious. He chases after the bad guys, but the old-boy network is too powerful and wicked. Hyun-woo is forced to acknowledge his defeat, at least momentarily.

But new momentum comes along when Min-ju's father visits the depressed prosecutor who might have become his son-in-law and passes along a long-lost diary written by Min-ju about 10 years ago.

Min-ju, a broadcast producer, traveled extensively and discovered many scenic spots. For her forthcoming honeymoon, she meticulously recorded the travel courses, including maps and comments.

The disaster flick is now gone, and a road-trip theme emerges with Hyun-woo visiting all the famous tourist spots described in Min-ju'S Diary. It's more of a travel guide since the diary lays out not only the specific route but also anecdotes and background stories associated with forests, temples and villages.

The film delicately depicts spectacularly beautiful images of Korean rivers, mountains, temples and forests, which will surely impress even most Korean viewers who think they have traveled enough around the Korean Peninsula.

But where is the love story (please, try to remember three legs)? Min-ju's affection toward Hyun-woo, in fact, is intertwined with the travelogue. Her image is superimposed on many scenes where Hyun-woo is tracking down her traces of love.

To help remind moviegoers that what they are watching is a melodrama, director Kim brings back to life Min-ju and makes her talk in a melodramatic fashion in order to put together the gorgeous scenic spots and her long-lost travelogue. But the scenic images are so powerful and overwhelming that it is questionable whether Min-ju's love story is delivered properly.

Strangely enough, Hyun-woo bumps into Se-jin (Uhm Ji-won) in most of the spots mentioned in the diary. Se-jin is more than a simple traveler who happens to know the route, forging a triangle of relationships that props up the plot in the second half of the movie.

"Trace of Love" is chiefly concerned with human reaction and relations buried under the rubble and then rediscovered through beautiful, almost healing, images of Korean landscape. Such luxurious images certainly deserve praise, but the actors' performances (Ypp's smiles, smirks and almost snarls) are less than impressive, and the three-legged theme is too complex to trace.

By Yang Sung-jin

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