Review: ALWAYS

Apparently someone told Song Il-Gon (Flower Island, A Feather, Magicians) that exquisite lo-fi indie character studies are all very well, but they don't pay the bills. Try a melodrama, they must have said. Try something so syrupy it'll have Koreans up and down the peninsula weeping into their hotteok. Give them an impossibly perfect couple, a doomed romance, a dark past, a ludicrous contrivance - yet it seems Song couldn't resist tinkering with the formula just a little.

Always is a strange film. It plays melodramatic conventions almost comically straight, yet it's certainly brilliantly put together for all that, with two superb performances from its leads - and it's startlingly grim. This is utterly shameless soap opera where the violence shocks, and the emotional manipulation feels genuinely painful, like Lee Chang-Dong doing primetime TV. It's definitely not for anyone who can't put up with a director yanking their chain, but Always is still a great, great piece of populist cinema.

So Ji Sub (Rough Cut) plays Chul Min, a former boxer with his glory days behind him who lives a solitary life working odd menial jobs and trying not to bother anyone. His latest part-time position is working the night shift as the attendant sitting in the booth at a downtown car park. On his first night, to his surprise a pretty young woman, Jung Hwa (TV actress Han Hyo Ju, also from the brilliant Ad Lib Night) walks into the booth, parks herself next to Chul Min in front of his tiny TV and acts as if she's known him for years.

It turns out she's blind, and mistook Chul Min for the old man who worked here before him. Mortified, Jung Hwa offers to get out - but being the sensitive tough guy he is, Chul Min lets her stay. Then lets her come back the next night. Then wonders if she'll be there tomorrow, and so on. When he ends up saving her from someone who wants to hurt her very badly, the two of them start to fall hopelessly in love, but it turns out Chul Min's past is more of a threat to their happiness than either of them could possibly have imagined.

And if that sounds fanciful on paper, rest assured it's even more ridiculously manufactured on screen. Song - who wrote as well as directed - doesn't stint on the clichés, from bathing nearly every exterior shot in buttery golden sunlight and vaseline soft-focus to So Ji Sub's ridiculous haircut. Never mind Chul Min's plainly built like a vault door even before his training montage to get back in shape: clearly his lack of good grooming is the obvious sign he was one step from a padded cell before Jung Hwa came along.

Chul Min found God after his career went off the rails, complete with flowery baptismal name, because of course he did. How else are you meant to sell the viewer on the depths of his contrition? Not to mention that when we get the answer to how exactly the two of them are connected - the revelation that drives Chul Min to risk his life to raise the money for the operation that's going to give Jung Hwa back her sight - the sheer idiot logic of it is breathtaking.

And yet it works. From a coldly cynical point of view Always is empty pablum, true. At the same time as well as the craft there's a quietly earnest quality to the film you'd have to be dead from the neck up not to be won over by, at least in part. There's a sly self-awareness about it, too; Song never seems to be outright poking fun (unlike, say, Park Jin-Pyo's You Are My Sunshine and 'It's total shinpa!') but there's always the sense he's smiling wryly somewhere behind the camera.

The two leads are obviously in on the joke, such as it is - Han Hyo Ju's wide-eyed little naif is winningly funny and genuinely lovely all at once, and So Ji Sub makes an endearingly awkward foil for her gentle teasing. They're playing types, but they clearly know they're playing types, with a fantastic chemistry that gives both the silly jokes and the sweet nothings a playful, witty quality that's streets ahead of most TV dramas covering the same ground. Even Chul Min giving Jung Hwa a puppy is both comically sappy and utterly charming.

But it's not just cleverly-written schmaltz. Song knows a romance is nothing without things going at least a little sour, or the couple in question actually risking something, and he knows that when this sort of thing happens in real life it tends to hurt. When Jung Hwa's attacked and Chul Min inadvertently saves her, Han Hyo Ju's terror is heartbreaking. Her reaction when Chul Min beats her assailant bloody and threatens to murder him hurts, as does her fear of how much she's begun to depend on him.

And for all Chul Min is a type, and his repentance pitched in the language of music videos and teenage angst, once he's realised just how much damage his bad boy past really caused So Ji Sub manages to make his self-recrimination feel genuinely painful - to say nothing of the actual martial arts sequence when he tries to put things right, with some seriously bone-crunching hits and blood flying across the ring.

Manipulative and sentimental to a fault, Always is still terrific stuff within its very specific field. It's almost impossible to defend to those without a taste for this kind of thing because it is blatantly pushing buttons. Song is completely unscrupulous in his single-minded desire to see every last one of you crawling around on the floor bawling like a baby and stuffing tissues up your nose. Yet he plays his audience like a master, guides his cast and crew with a rock-steady hand and most importantly, never abandons all restraint. Most, yes, but not all.

The man cares, or seems to, at least, and for those who want to suspend their disbelief Song's dedication to showing how deep his leads' emotions run turns what could have been marshmallow escapism for bored housewives into something more like Peppermint Candy, only with vaseline smeared all over the lens. If you don't like schmaltz point blank, Always is very unlikely to convert you... but if you've got any weakness for this stuff, Song Il-Gon's film comes hugely recommended.
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