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Wednesday, July 3, 2002
Words better left unsaid
By KAORI SHOJI
"We have to talk" are the four worst words in the English language, at least when it comes to intimate relationships. As soon as your partner trots them out, you know, with a certain nausea, that you've already lost. But as an Asian, my feeling is: Why "talk" when there's nothing to say except, maybe, "Bye, it's been fun"? A brief handshake will do the trick just as well. Words. Don't they make things worse?
Those who feel the same are urged to see "One Fine Spring Day," which won awards at both the Pusan and Tokyo international film festivals last year. This is a work that goes straight to the heart of the Asian love relationship, eloquently illustrating our nature to bypass the "have to talk" bit and go straight for the handshake.
Director Jin Ho Hur says in the production notes that he is interested in different forms of Asian love -- from that between family and friends to that between men and women -- and wants to pursue them in a way "that's not hindered by the Hollywood rules that define what love should be." Consequently, his film will have more to say to those who were nursed on Hollywood love but are still uncomfortable with (and incapable of) applying those rules to real life. Here, at last, is a picture that's honest about it. "One Fine Spring Day" features modernized, Westernized characters who are nevertheless entrenched in the traditional Asian conviction that the deepest, most important emotions defy verbal translation.
Hur is remarkably sensitive to sound -- he invites the viewer to listen to pregnant pauses, feet squeaking on new snow, the pattering of rain on a slated roof, the breeze shaking the leaves in a bamboo forest. For Hur, these sounds are more eloquent than words and testify to a refusal to clutter the ears with human chatter.
Accordingly, Hur is just as careful and painstaking with the visuals. His camera never spins or does tricks. It never moves faster than the leisurely pace of a slooow family dinner. With utter fascination, he witnesses, then frames the emotions that comprise love and its fade-out process.
Eun Su (Yeong Ae Lee) is a personality at a Korean radio station. Thirtyish and divorced, Eun Su seemingly devotes all her energy to work. On a recording job in another county, she meets sound engineer Sang Woo (Ji Tae Yu), who's several years younger and still living at home. They feel a mutual attraction. She arranges it so that they can do a series of recordings together. One night after work, she invites him up for ramen.
Thus begins their relationship, which blossoms in the spring. As the days grow hotter, their happiness peaks. Then inexplicably, Eun Su begins to withdraw. She launches into an affair with an older colleague at work, then informs Sang Woo that it's all over. Though Sang Woo agrees to say goodbye, he misses her terribly. He stalks her apartment and follows her car, only to discover she's on a weekend trip with the other guy and another couple.
Crushed beyond words, Sang Woo returns home, only to have his beloved and long-ailing grandmother die. Deprived of the two women who mattered most in his life, he sinks into despair. Time passes, the seasons change. Once more, it's spring. Then out of the blue, Eun Su calls and they meet. In her light, cheery way, she takes his arm and suggests they spend the day together. Sang Woo wavers, then says no. Seeing that Sang Woo was too burned to invest any more emotion in her, Eun Su doesn't insist.
So why did Eun Su cool off? It was probably because Sang Woo mentioned marriage, and this independent career woman got the shivers as she envisioned herself cooped up in his rural household, making kimchi with his grandmother like a good Korean bride. Also, being divorced probably made it that much harder to commit herself to more demanding ties than the carefree ones the two had been enjoying.
So why didn't Sang Woo demand an explanation? He probably didn't know how. His expressions of love are limited to: "Let's eat this together" or "Can I give you a lift?" And though so attuned to sound, Sang Woo hadn't been able to pick up on Eun Su's unspoken desires and anxieties. Or was he aware of it all and simply powerless to change her mind?
The absence of explanation opens this film to endless interpretation -- the quieter the characters, the bigger one's need to discuss, analyze and simply mull over what the director and characters really meant. This is how "One Fine Spring Day" grows on you and stays -- appropriately recalling that old Asian adage: "Less is more." With a vengeance.