[K-FILM REVIEWS] 호우시절 (A Good Rain Knows)

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This peculiar relationship might have literary roots well over a few decades old, what with copious examples like Hwang Sun-Won's 소나기 (Showers) proving the point, but it has now become the perfect opportunity to mock a genre which might be on its very last legs: the idea that melodrama and rain go hand in hand on Korean shores, even when we're not dealing with hackneyed tearjerkers. There is likely no better example than Jang Yoon-Hyun's 1997 hit 접속 (The Contact), which might be what brought Jeon Do-Yeon fame, but still benefits from one of the best soundtrack of the 1990s, going from Velvet Underground to more jazzy, moody pieces. Sure enough, its emotional climax is accompanied by The Toys' A Lover's Concerto and its "how gentle is the rain/that falls softly on the meadow" as the credits roll, not to mention the many occasions when we're being served with nature's tears, as a sort of emotional litmus test the characters have to go through. Some melodrama directors like Kwak Jae-Yong have made rain their lifetime companion, one without which their stories can't seem to function (as an equivalent of what cigarette smoke can do for a film noir), while others simply misuse it as a sort of Ozu-esque pillow shot. Hearing that rain seemed to be playing a major role in Hur Jin-Ho's latest film 호우시절 (A Good Rain Knows), I was prepared to decant copious amounts of vitriol over the proceedings, but it does indeed seem like Hur Jin-Ho is still the Hur Jin-Ho we knew and appreciated, add or take a few telling changes.

I say that because the last few years of Hur's career have been a little disquieting, for lack of a better word. There is no doubt that 행복 (Happiness) was a major work and one of the best films of 2007, but I suspect Hwang Jung-Min, Im Soo-Jung and Gong Hyo-Jin might have a lot more to do with it than they're given credit for, which leaves us with over a half decade of rather conflicting results for Hur. 외출 (April Snow) is probably the best example, a film which seemed to be trapped inside the insipid meanders which Bae Yong-Joon's persona created, as he tried to escape from the Korean Wave-friendly suave image which trumped over everything else he did in his career at least once, but being inevitably limited by it. For that reason, the film felt more like a love letter to Yonsama's fanbase in Japan (as in, "look at how your favorite debonair goes for serious acting! And buy every bit of merchandise even only remotely related to the film") than anything Hur Jin-Ho might direct, any changes in style coming as a result of external pressure more than philosophical u-turns in his cinematic modus operandi.

And if you add that his short for the terribly misguided omnibus 오감도 (Five Senses of Eros) was rather listless and trite, all Hur had to show for since 2001's 봄날은 간다 (One Fine Spring Day) was a lovely, little known short from 2003 - 따로 또 같이 (Alone Together) with Yoon Jin-Seo - and Happiness itself, which probably would have been very good regardless of Hur's presence, given a decent script which could let that amazing cast loose. A Good Rain Knows was important in that sense, as it could confirm that April Snow was indeed only a faux pas borne out of one mismatched partnership, and that Hur could still be his old self, sparks of greatness he had shown back in 2007, shortcomings and significant help from his thespians notwithstanding. It's certainly not a return to his 2001 and particularly 1998 form, but the good news is that... yes, Hur Jin-Ho is back.

A Good Rain Knows first started as part of what was going to be a Chengdu-themed, three-segment omnibus film entitled 成都我爱你 (Chengdu, I Love You), the other two parts being directed by Fruit Chan and Cui Jian - the latter two shorts were patched together and released with said title, while Hur went solo with this feature film, which was released in China as a sort of part two. Chengdu, of course, is the capital of Sichuan Province, which was ravaged in 2008 by the Wenchuan earthquake and its 68,000+ victims, but is also one of the most vibrant tourist sites in the Mainland's southwest, sights and sounds which Hur perfectly captured in the film, down to the quirkiest details (like insane traffic, stinky pork entrails dishes and pandas). For a good half hour, you do get the feeling that you're a mere spectator of what is little more than a visual brochure, particularly considering that our leads are as known for their work in commercials and print ads as they are for their small and big screen roles. And when you're dealing with stars like Jung Woo-Sung and Gao Yuanyuan, it's fair to say that both sexes, in both countries, will have plenty to look at on the screen.

Such criticism wouldn't be entirely inappropriate, as the idyllic beauty portrayed in the film's first act doesn't really work as a narrative catalyst, setting the background before the story starts to make its mark. All you're likely to think about during those rather long thirty minutes will be how wondrous Chengdu is, and how much you'd love to go there. Although Hur continues to stress that his connection with the Chengdu project was only tangential, and the earthquake side of things could only come in handy when dealing with our dramatic second act, it's pretty clear that the Sichuan capital plays a huge role here, becoming a character of its own. Sometimes the feeling is so overwhelming you expect Jung to suddenly stare at the camera with his million dollar smile, and invite you to come there, fly with Korean Airlines and whatnot. And if you consider that Hur manages to make Gao look even prettier and more natural than her usual charming self, then there was certainly cause for concern, at least if your goal was something more than just eye candy.

But maybe that's what makes Hur a talented director after all, because the feeling was no so different even in 1998, with his masterful debut 8월의 크리스마스 (Christmas in August). All that Ozu-like atmosphere and simplicity, the placid pace and strangely charming realism would have certainly overstayed its welcome by the hour mark, but before such feelings could ever come to the surface, Hur would bring out some poignant angst (Han Suk-Gyu teaching Daddy Shin Gu how to use the VCR is still one of the most remarkable scenes in all of modern Korean cinema) punctuated by tiny moments of hilarity, or awkwardness. That is what makes his brand of melodrama easier to accept, and in turn the reason why he never really made a mark at the box office (as his melodrama sensibilities sort of betray the casual moviegoer's expectations): it does seem like you're watching something ordinary, almost trivial, but he manages to make it resonate by slightly bending that glitzy exterior. The same happens in A Good Rain Knows, as he manages to make two glamorous superstars like Gao and Jung look just like two ordinary past lovers who rekindle their relationship, and find it significantly affected by the weight of the past.

Dong-Ha and May first met in the US during their college days, their studying literature the perfect trait d'union for what will cement a relationship which never really seemed to take off back then, despite the two's feelings. Now she's become a guide for the world-famous Du Fu Caotang (thatched hut) in Chengdu, while he's in Sichuan Province representing his heavy equipment construction company on behalf of a colleague who couldn't go. There's your coincidence number 1. Number 2 is the fact his old classmate May was actually a Chengdu native, so when they meet again for what at first seems only like a brief encounter, the years of experience and maturity they added on top start morphing their old memories into something a little more vivid, and maybe worth exploring once again. Because, like the title says, a good rain knows when the come, just like timing is crucial when it comes to relationships.

The connection with poetry is particularly inspired, not only because of the title - which is the first line from Du Fu's classic 春夜喜雨 (Drenched by Rainy Delight on a Spring Night) - and local connections - legendary Tang poet Du spent time in Chengdu from 760 to 764, when he became military advisor of Chengdu governor Yan Wu - but also because it captures the kind of subtle romanticism at the core of Hur's works. It's not something that's conveyed through syrupy ballads and overwrought dialogue, but a rather visual and aural type of communication: if there ever was an emotional equivalent of Dolby Surround, that's what Hur Jin-Ho films would be. They envelop you in, make you feel different things from all sorts of angles, but never overpower with a single, melting pot of emotional histrionics. We're dealing with something as simple as it gets, and which you will have experienced a thousand times on the big and small screen, but it works, because it unquestionably is a "Hur Jin-Ho." When the couple dances in town along with Chengdu citizens from all walks of life, it's certainly a common sight (particularly in that kind of Chinese setting), but it works, tremendously so. When they play around with pandas, it's not just cutesy shenanigans thrown at the wall, there's always that sparkling of imperfect humanity thrown in which breaks the balance, and makes it human. It's in many ways a glitzy, almost Hollywood-like premise, and it's hard to deny that, but by being so drenched in what made Hur's film shine, it manages to stand out.

But noting Hur's return to form wouldn't suffice, as he once again has chosen one mean cast to deliver his fascinating atmosphere. There's really only four major characters, but they're all perfectly cast. Set aside Gao and Jung, Hur recruited Kim Sang-Ho of 즐거운 인생 (The Happy Life) and the upcoming 전우치 (Woochi), who not only delivers his lines in Chinese with admirable accuracy (he just learned it on the spot), but perfectly conveys the aura of someone who would easily adapt to any situation no matter where life sends him, while at the same time never letting go of his quintessential "Koreanness." Also, for the other major role Hur didn't just go out and pick any Chinese actor, he cast veteran Ma Shaohua, one of the most underrated performers in China - he's more famous for his roles on TV, like playing Sun Yat-Sen in the controversial 2003 CCTV drama 走向共和 (For the Sake of the Republic), or as Dou Ying in Hu Mei's 2005 masterpiece 汉武大帝 (Han Wu the Great). The two bring color and personality to their characters, in turn enriching the lead's performances.

In a way, Jung and Gao are similar actors, in that their aura and image tends to often overshadow the fact that they do have talent, despite it being marred by shortcomings. Gao quickly became Wang Xiaoshuai's muse in the late 90s, but she made more of a name for herself with her appearances on TV, through wuxia like 倚天屠龙记 (Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre) and 天下第一 (The World's Finest). But she's been sort of returning to her roots as of late, choosing meatier roles and better material, like the tremendous (and insanely epic) historical drama 大秦帝国 (The Qin Empire), or Lu Chuan's 南京! 南京! (The City of Life and Death). And the maturity shows here, as she doesn't just look and act pretty (and how hard would that be?), but adds vulnerability, a few warts and underlying wounds from the past which will severely affect her rekindled relationship with Dong-Ha. Jung himself started with macho roles throughout the 90s, and as he grew older, he began to expand his range with more diverse roles. Although he still has to top his performance in 2001's 무사 (Musa: The Warrior) and his physicality and CF experience get the better of him when it's time to act in a more natural way, this is quite the assured performance from him, mixing charisma with enough everyday Joe intangibles to make his character effective.

I guess the biggest hurdle this film might face is the use of English, at least in the west. Admittedly, it far surpasses what I expected, and it's perfectly understandable, but don't expect fluency or terribly complex sentences. And why would you? May might have to speak English because of her work, but it's only as a second language, using more or less the same words, a few hours per day. And Dong-Ha is no better, since he probably gets to use English only during a few business meetings here and there, and that's about it. It's not perfect, but it's perfectly acceptable, and much better than the multitude of dramas on TV tossing two stars on fancy oversea locations, expecting the viewer to believe they've been spending years there, when they can't even spell their own new, acquired English name. Seen in that light, it does break the mood a little, but then again Hur tries to minimize it to the essential, and instead focuses more on body language and atmosphere.

A Good Rain Knows is more important for what it means for Hur's career than for its intrinsic quality: it's far from Hur's best film, and the increased number of cuts, shorter scenes and the occasional touch of comedy signals what might be a change of style, but at the core it's still the Hur Jin-Ho of yore, one of the best storytellers in Korea. So if that is what it'll continue to bring, I'll happily take this rain....

RATING: 7.5

호우시절 (A Good Rain Knows)

Director: 허진호 (Hur Jin-Ho)
Screenplay: 이한얼 (Lee Han-Eol), 허진호 (Hur Jin-Ho)
Produced by: Pancinema/Zonbo Media/Taurus Films
Int'l Sales: Pancinema
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release: 10/08/2009
Box Office: #88 - 289,699 Nationwide Admissions - 2,134,361,500 Won  
CAST: 정우성 (Jung Woo-Sung), 高圆圆 (Gao Yuanyuan), 김상호 (Kim Sang-Ho), 马少骅 (Ma Shaohua)
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