Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Review: Shin Su-won's "Passerby #3 (Rainbow)"

Passerby #3 (Rainbow). 2009. Written and directed by Shin Su-won. Produced by Shin Su-won and Kim Mi-jung. Cinematography by Han Tai-yong. Edited by Lee Hyun-mee. Music by Moon Sung-nam. Art direction by Kang Ji-hyun. Sound by Lee Taek-hee.

Cast: Park Hyun-young (Kim Ji-wan), Beack So-myung (Si-young), Yi Me-youn (Producer Choi), Kim Jae-rok (Sang-woo), Cho Hyun-sook (Hyun-joo), Yang Jong-hyeon (Ahn Chang-nam), Park Ji-weon, Song Nam-hyeon, Noh Yu-nan (Rainbow band members).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

The trials and tribulations of being a film director, an oft-told tale in movies, gets a unique and lightly surreal spin in Shin Su-won’s Passerby #3 (Rainbow), which can be best described as the slightly milder cousin of Barton FinkPasserby #3 features an increasingly unhinged protagonist whose attempts at individual creativity are continually ground under the merciless gearwheels of the conventional wisdom of producers and investors, whose ideas of what sells seemingly shift without rhyme or reason.  Ji-wan (Park Hyun-young), after catching the filmmaking bug with her first touch of a camera, impulsively quits her day job, going all in to pursue her dream.  Cut to: five years later, with a bratty, demanding teenage son (Si-young, played by Beack So-myung), an increasingly impatient husband (Sung-woo, played by Kim Jae-rok), 15 drafts of her script “House of the Sun,” visions of imaginary ants everywhere, and constant producer rejections, Ji-wan has yet to make her debut.  Producer Choi (Yi Me-youn), an old friend of Ji-wan’s, provides her with a last lease on professional life by hiring Ji-wan at her company; but alas, the vicious cycle of script changes, rejections and enforced commercial mainstreaming begins anew. 

Inspired by the sight of a rainbow in a puddle that may or may not be a mirage, Ji-wan pursues a new idea, a music-themed film called “Rainbow,” which greatly excites her, but unfortunately meets resistance yet again from Choi and the investors.  Choi, taking her cue from her bosses, harshly criticizes Ji-wan’s “psychotic” fantasy-laden script and her “shitty imagination,” giving her the rather insulting gift of the book “How to Write a Script,” so that Ji-wan can come up with an alternate idea.  Choi soon relents, forced to try to work with Ji-wan’s original “Rainbow” script when a rival production company launches a project similar to the one Ji-wan is currently writing.  Unfortunately, Ji-wan’s travails with Choi eventually lead to the bitter conclusion that there are really no friends in the movie business.

Just as Ji-wan is bullied in the pursuit of her art, her son Si-young is bullied in the pursuit of his, by an upperclassman at school who taunts and intimidates him as they practice together in the school rock band, and swipes the new guitar Si-young’s mother bought him.  This paralleling of two creative people whose attempts to fully express their talents are thwarted by intimidating forces is but one example of the depth and sensitivity of characterization that vividly breathes life into what could have been an irredeemably clichéd scenario.

Passerby #3 (Rainbow), Shin’s debut feature, which won best Korean film at the Jeonju International Film Festival and best Asian-Middle Eastern film at the Tokyo International Film Festival (both in 2010), is at least partly autobiographical.  Similarly to her film’s protagonist, Shin quit her teaching job in 2002 to enter film school and pursue filmmaking while raising two children.  Again, like her main character, Shin had also been preparing a music-themed film before making this one, and indeed, many musical elements remain in her story.  However, Shin insists that the events occurring in her film are heavily fictionalized.  Nevertheless, based on the portrait Shin paints of the Korean film industry here, one could be forgiven for concluding that it must be a miracle that any personal, non-derivative films manage to be made in Korea at all.  Passerby #3, of course, is itself proof positive that such films are indeed being made, and are by no means rare.  The performances in the film are, for the most part, just as multifaceted as its narrative.  Park Hyun-young is especially memorable as the spineless sad sack who eventually finds the courage to be more than a bit player in her own drama, while Yi Me-youn, as the producer, reveals deeper layers that complicate her role as the villainous killer of creativity she initially seems to be.  The only character here that feels miscalculated is that of Ji-wan’s son Si-young.  As played by Beack So-myung, Si-young comes off as such an obnoxious jerk, and is so merciless in his verbal take-downs of his mother, that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for his artistic struggles.  Still, this only slightly mars what is otherwise an affecting, impressive introduction to an interesting new director well-worth watching.

Passerby #3 (Rainbow) screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 22 at 4:30 and September 25 at 4:30 as part of "Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today," a small but impressive snapshot of recent Korean cinema.  A joint presentation of MoMA and the Korea Society, the series runs from September 22 through October 2.  For more information on this and other films in the series, and to purchase tickets, visit MOMA's website.

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