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[MOVIE REVIEW] 'Virgin Snow' contrasts Korea and Japan

2007/10/30 | Permalink | Source

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"Virgin Snow", a Korean-Japanese co-production, is not exactly a seamless integration of Korean and Japanese filmmaking sensibilities. Although Korean director Han Sang-hee helms this ambitious project, the film's overall identity is pretty much Japanese.

The film's key developments take place in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto. Min (played by Korean heartthrob Lee Joon-gi) follows his father, a professor of ceramics, to live in Japan as an exchange student for a while, and encounters a shy Japanese girl named Nanae (Aoi Miyazaki).

From the very beginning, the film defines what's Korean and Japanese in a way that amplifies their contrasting features. Min is portrayed as a very upbeat, carefree and highly competitive Korean high school student. A typical extrovert, he quickly mingles with his Japanese friends, and even beats up some bullies, using his well-honed taekwondo tricks.

Nanae is exactly the opposite character. She's shy and thinks carefully when she is required to express her feelings. Her mood seems almost always gloomy, except for when she strolls the streets of Kyoto with Min. The unlikely couple first faces the most fundamental challenge in forging an international relationship: the language barrier. Min does not understand a single Japanese word. Nor does Nanae grasp what Min tries to say.

Of course, a strong desire to understand each other conjures up the fundamental communications tool: body language. When Min and Nanae find a shelter in the corner of a temple to avoid the rain, she tells Min that the raindrops are "ame" (rain). It takes only a second for Min to realize what it means and offers an Korean equivalent, "bi".

The body language, however, is fairly limited in exchanging romantic feelings; so the couple begins to put in some time to learn the language of their beloved. But the cultural gap turns out to be bigger than imagined. Min does not have any patience in building relationships. He jumps like a puppy outside of the classroom to draw the attention from the calm, composed Nanae.

Min's straightforward characterization reinforces, perhaps falsely, the stereotype that Korean men tend to be more aggressive than Japanese men in wooing women -- be they Korean or Japanese.

Even when things turn sour, the contrasting characteristics between Korean and Japanese determine the way the story plays out. Nanae has some problems with her family, and she decides to cool off for a while. And she makes a crucial decision that she believes will be understood by her boyfriend, but Min is not familiar with the subtle message.

A serious miscommunication distorts their relationship, and it is Min who gets the wrong picture, thanks to his hot-tempered and impatient character. Min is not a hopeless brat, however. He's considerate and affectionate in many respects. But the trouble is that his cultural code is not in sync with Nanae's more reserved and conservative one.

In the film, which was released in Japan in May, Lee Jun-ki looks as handsome as ever. His adventure into this Korea-Japan co-production reflects his steadily rising profile and popularity among Japanese fans. But it's questionable whether Lee has taken a step further in this romantic flick because his acting is less than impressive.

In contrast, Miyazaki exhibits a depth that is usually found in mature actresses. This young but experienced Japanese actress seems to know her role to the full and how to control her emotions to create dramatic effect.

Despite the somewhat simplistic contrasts between two cultures, the film leaves the audiences on a largely positive note. It carefully sets up a number of well-drawn details throughout the film, which make up for the otherwise flat plot.

By Yang Sung-jin

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