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[MOVIE REVIEW]Comic star's melodramatic acting in 'South of the Border'

2006/04/27 Source

The only seeming virtue of war seems to be that it enriches the soil of narrative experiences, which explains why there are so many Korean hits dealing with either the Korean War or its aftermaths. Out of the top 10 all-time most successful Korean films in terms of box office earnings, half of them are such films including "Taegukgi" (2004) and "Welcome to Dongmakgol" (2005).

Another promising contender for the list is still yet to come this spring, a film titled "South of the Border", which is about a North Korean defector Seon-ho (Cha Seung-won) who cannot forget his dearest lover Yeon-hwa (Jo Yi-jin) left behind in the North. But he marries a South Korean woman, Kyung-ju, (Shim Hye-jin) upon hearing the news that Yeon-hwa married in North Korea, which later turned out to be untrue.

Different from most of its predecessors in the category, the film isn't focused on tension between the two Koreas, but is rather devoted to issues related to North Korean defectors in the South while keeping on track with the romance. What also stands out are the depictions of the people in Pyongyang, which is not dark and gruesome at all, but full of lively entertainment, similar to that of Seoul. "People living in Pyongyang are mostly privileged ones in the North, so no wonder they have that much freedom", director Ahn Pan-seok said after the press preview in downtown Seoul on Tuesday.

To improve the reality in the Pyongyang scenes, the former television drama producer had to drive over 40,000 kilometers in search of locations, and double- and cross-checked almost all the references available about life in Pyongyang.

What makes the film more than a decent melodrama about North Korean defectors is the magnificent acting of Cha Seung-won, one of the most sought-after Korean film stars whose former films have attracted more than 20 million moviegoers.

In spite of the success of the historic thriller "Blood Rain" (2005), in which he played a serious government investigator, Cha has been almost exclusively known as a comic film star, whose former hit films are comedies such as "Kick the Moon", "Jail Breakers - No. 815" and "My Teacher, Mr. Kim".

Through the upcoming film, however, Cha attempts his first melodramatic role, which livened up the film as the director intended. "To leave a longing feeling on the audiences' minds after the end of the film is the best reward for me", said the actor who trained for four months in the North Korean dialect.

Even though the romance is between two former North Koreans reuniting in the South, the film adapts a somewhat trite melodramatic conflict structure based on a transformed love triangle. With Cha acting out the warm-hearted North Korean defector with a Forrest Gump type of pureness and possessiveness in mind, this movie never feels too long.

Throughout the film, Yeon-hwa, played by Jo, betrays people's mindset about North Korean woman with her outspoken manner. Ironically, her directness is the biggest source of tears, not of Seon-ho, but of the audience.

The highlight comes when the couple, reunited in Seoul, has lunch at McDonald's. Without noticing anything about Seon-ho's marriage, Yeon-hwa explains why she chose the place for lunch. "I have to readjust myself to the capitalist society as soon as possible, so don't urge me to marry soon until then", she beams a smile at him but Seon-ho looks away in remorse.

"I guess Kim Jong-il will be saddened at the end of the film if he happens to see it", the director said when asked what he thought the North Korean leader's reaction would be if he saw the film. "South of the Border" will be released nationwide on May 4.

By Lee Yong-sung

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