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Friday, June 9, 2006

Flowers of romance, Korean style


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Andrew Lau
Running time: 125 minutes
Language: English
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Forget sex, drugs, or whipped cream on a mocha frappuchino. When it comes to guilty pleasures, there's nothing quite as guilty or pleasurable as the gooey, sappy, sickly sweetness of a Korean love story for that walloping adrenaline rush coursing through the veins, that massive opening and subsequent flooding of tear ducts, or that so-bad-it's-sooo-good mantra pealing in the brain. Oh, and the slow, languid, detoxing calm that assails you once the end credits roll and the lights go on. You sigh, you stretch, you bask in the knowledge that the experience involved no calories, no illicit dealings and no shedding of one's clothing. Is it any wonder that as a nation, we've become addicted to the stuff? Or that more women, given the choice between staying home with a Korean DVD and a date with the sales rep of her client company, will opt for the former?

News photo
Jun Ji Hyun (bottom) and Jung Woo Sung (top) in "Daisy" (c) 2006 I LOVE CINEMA ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The latest fix, I mean release, is "Daisy," the love story to top all others in terms of over-the-top incredulity, the impossible sacrifices made in the name of love, the tender, caring dialogue of the sort that nowadays can't even be found in the pages of a Harlequin Romance novel, not to mention the utter cuteness and/or gorgeousness of the characters. And in the world of Korean movies, that's saying a hell of a lot. You'd think such a work can only have come from a veteran K-love story manufacturer, but the director is Hong Kong action movie virtuoso Andrew Lau (of "Infernal Affairs" fame). He has never made a love story and speaks no Korean, but it's clear that he has an uncanny sense of navigation. There's never a misstep in the assembly of this massive vehicle of lofty passions and subtle eros. There's also a glossy, lacquered varnish given to each and every frame. Lau can stage and choreograph gripping action sequences with unmatchable skill, but with "Daisy" he demonstrates that he is perfectly comfortable in this domain too, and that concepts like blushing girlishness and first love (in a foreign language, yet) pose him no challenge.

Still, remnants of the "Infernal Affairs" stamp linger, like the fact that one of the characters is a contract killer and the other an Interpol cop. They're both Koreans living in Holland, both single and workaholics, which for them means much firing of guns and chasing people down dark alleyways. But even stoic, hard-boiled guys can fall in love (with the same girl), causing all sorts of complications and inner turmoil. Not even the ghost of a rose-hue suggests a happy ending. No, it's all about duty and sacrifice and work! It's about being a Real Man and the accompanying connotations of silence and strength! Above all, it's about devoting everything to a young woman with no expectation of a physical payoff. Indeed, in "Daisy," no one gets close, and if they do, it's to stop the blood from a bullet wound. Talk about the East Asian, all-pain, no-gain aesthetic of true love.

Take the contract killer, Park Yi (Jung Woo Sung). He's so repressed (from what is never clear) he prefers to watch his secret love-object Hye Young (Jun Ji Hyun) from the power lens attached to his rifle, rather than attempt an actual meeting. When he discovers that daisies are her favorite flowers he arranges to deliver a bunch to her door everyday. When she falls into a creek by accident he later makes a bridge with his bare hands to prevent that happening again. Hye Young is a painter and does portraits of passersby in the town square. Park Yi only makes a move when he feels she may be interested in someone else, an Interpol agent named Jeong Woo (Lee Sung-Jae), by appearing discreetly at her chair to have his portrait done.

Jeong Woo, who initially approaches Hye Young because her portrait pitch was an ideal spot for marking a drug-dealer suspect, is quickly drawn to her loveliness. The pair strike up a shy relationship of sorts before the drug bust, which unfolds in front of Hye Young, goes awry. Hye Young and Jeong Woo are both injured and he returns to South Korea (out of a burning sense of duty, of course), leaving her dispirited and lonely. In the meantime, Park Yi continues to send her flowers and watch over her from afar. At this point, "Daisy" has turned into a two-hankie affair and you're all ready to up stakes and move to Amsterdam, where apparently, real romance blossoms.

On the surface, "Daisy" is a chick-flick with a vengeance, but for an East Asian audience, it will probably speak as much to the guys as their girlfriends.

In an age of instant love and cell phone courtships, there's something awesomely macho about the relationships in "Daisy" and the way the two men choose to express themselves. And to the film's eternal credit, not once does anyone utter the words "I love you." There's a genuine, male sexiness in the absence of that all-too obvious phrase.

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