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Friday, March 10, 2006

An Asian broth that needed more spice


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Haru ga Kureba
Director: Jang Ha Ryu
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: Korean
Opens March 25
[See Japan Times movie listings]

As is the case with many South Korean films, there's so much about "Springtime" (titled "Haru ga Kureba" in Japan) that reminds the Japanese of a particular taste: that of ordinary life in East Asia. It's a taste that the Japanese are finding increasingly difficult to experience, which is probably one of the reasons for the enduring Korean movie boom. Often losing track of who we are (you know, in the mad pursuit for internationalization or some such), we often look to Korean movies for a much-needed reality-check.

News photo
Min Sik Choi in "Springtime"

In that sense, "Springtime" is ideal: an earthy, no-frills kind of story with an earthy, no-frills protagonist who spends a huge chunk of screen-time guzzling noodles right out of the pot, emitting those slurping sounds that, more than anything else, evokes something deeply embedded in the East Asian DNA.

If they gave out an Academy Award for Best Eating Performances, then that Oscar would go to Min Sik Choi, for the way he gives his all to noodles consumption. You just want to shout, "Yes, yes! This is who we are, what we do!"

Choi is a veteran Korean thespian, best known for his macho, hard-boiled roles in movies like "Old Boy," but in " Springtime" he drops the heavy chauvinism to play Hyeon Woo, a big teddy bear of a guy who at fortysomething is out of work and lives with his mom (Yeo Jong Kun).

A trumpet/sax player, Hyeon Woo has set high standards for himself and his music: He refuses to compromise his art for fame and money and he refuses to teach ungifted students. As a result he's single, poor and embittered. When ex-girlfriend Yeon Hee (Ho Jung Kim) turns up with a gift of vitamins for his mother, he coldly pushes her away. But her visit compels him to leave Seoul (with all its implications of youth gone sour) for a teaching job in the junior high school of a remote mining town.

He can already feel himself hating the prospect but he goes, and walks into the brass-band classroom full of hostility. The group of boys in their early teens are, however, sweet and not a little dazzled by the urbane Hyeon Woo, who starts the lesson with a pep talk on how musicians should never play for prestige or wealth.

"Springtime" shares themes with Hollywood productions like "School of Rock" or "Music of the Heart," but the straightforward storytelling and unadventurous camera work means it doesn't sport a similar, glamorous sheen. More interesting than Hyeon Woo's musical endeavors are the depictions of the kids. This being South Korea, they're shy, well-behaved and extremely deferential to their elders.

Thirteen-year-old Jeh Il (Yi Je Wung), for example, works part time in a garage to help pay the bills in a household that consists of just him and an elderly grandmother whom he both reveres and adores. Hyeon Woo (himself a sucker for maternal figures) finds himself pitching in financially, moonlighting at a seedy night club and breaking some personal ethical taboos in the process. But he must admit: Helping Jeh Il doesn't feel so bad, and neither does interacting with the other students.

Though he had been a semi-misanthrope in Seoul, Hyeon Woo now does things like invite the kids over for dinner (It's always noodles until someone remarks politely that there should at least, be some kimchi!) or making daily stops at the local pharmacy for a chat with the pretty young chemist Su Yeon (Shin Yeong Jang).

Su Yeon is bright and smart and Hyeon Woo asks her why she doesn't leave this backwater for better prospects; she answers promptly that she has a sick father in the hospital. Hyeon Woo accepts her answer as a matter of course. In South Korea, the parent (or grandparent)-child relationship is sacrosanct, and "Springtime" reminds us that not so long ago, Japan used to be the same way.

But the charming, if ungainly, centerpiece to this tale is actor Choi -- rumpled, creased and sporting a sizable middle -- three things you just don't see in Korean film stars who for the most part are excessively chiseled and polished. Choi comes off as refreshingly real, and carries off scenes like having a smoke and sitting on the rinky toilet in his mother's apartment (the door ajar so he can watch TV while going about his business) with complete ease.

Choi's Hyeon Woo is a cantankerous slob, but oh-so-lovable; a beefcake baby that would rouse maternal instincts in most women over 15. It's no wonder that Yeon Hee can't write him off and his mom thinks nothing of making a long train journey to see him, bearing many tupperware containers full of home-cooked goodies.

At night in his tiny apartment, mother and son lie on the same bed, talking softly together before saying good night. It's a nice moment, one that you'll find yourself tracing in the mind at odd moments, during life in East Asia.

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