By Lee Hyo-won
When it comes to replicas, modern Koreans may be familiar with fake Louis Vuitton handbags; the immaculate craftsmanship baffles even experts. But not many people realize that "Mongyu Dowondo" (Paradise in a Dream, 1447), displayed at the National Museum of Korea, is a mock-up. The original landmark painting of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) remains in Japan.
For "Insadong Scandal
", first-time director Park Hee-gon
may have been inspired by that tantalizing fact, which inevitably points to sensitive Korea-Japan relations, but he opts for something purely entertainment-driven rather than stoop to sappy "nationalism marketing" to tell the story of lost art and misdirected ambitions. Like George Clooney and others in the "Ocean's" franchise, popular actor Kim Rae-won
) and a host of colorful characters bring a stylish and speedy crime story set against the exotic art hub of Seoul, Insa-dong.
It all came from a dream. Angyeon immortalized the reverie of prince Anpyeong in "Mongyu Dowondo" and captured his own fantasies in "Byeokando". But the painting of the Changdeok Palace pond disappeared along with the crown prince, who was overthrown and killed by his brother-cum-king, and its existence became known only 60 years ago through a Joseon artist's book.
"Insadong" imagines what would happen if the painting resurfaced after 400 years of Holy Grail-like existence. The minimum auction-bidding price is 40 billion won, and naturally, notorious art mogul Bae Tae-jin grabs at the lucrative opportunity. Sex symbol Uhm Jung-hwa
) plays the part of a young Cruella De Vil who unabashedly lobbies politicians and engages in illicit art exchanges to fund her fancies. "Byeokando" would enable her to conquer Insa-dong once and for all, but first she must find someone to restore the tattered painting ― the one and only genius restorer Lee Gang-jun (Kim).
Lee had proved his devilish talents with the paintbrush in restoring a priceless Joseon treasure, but his career perished as soon as it bloomed when he was framed for its disappearance. Bae beckons Lee back to the art scene with "Byeokando", waving 1 billion won for the year-long project. Lee accepts, though he asks for a fancy sports car as a bonus, and settles comfortably in the state-of-the-art restoration lab situated in Bae's gallery. Meanwhile, Bae puts on a show for the press about donating the priceless work to the state while scheming with a Japanese buyer, but Lee has some elaborate plans of his own.
The movie is fast-paced and visually enticing throughout, but it doesn't completely lure the viewer until the latter half. In the beginning, it's more about style than substance. The very talented Kim had hitherto touched hearts with dramatic roles, but keeps cool in "Insadong" as the charming antiheroic hero that is aloof yet way too suave. Of course, such is what one expects in entertainment, the protagonist is not only very young and good-looking but also possesses a sharp tongue and encyclopedic knowledge to match his magic fingers.
Uhm's sex appeal is unquestionable but her screen persona doesn't melt into the frame as Kim Hye-soo
did in "Tazza: The High Rollers" ("Tazza: The High Rollers
"). She's ravishing in her form-fitting, structured outfits, which naturally include cleavage-baring keyhole evening gowns, but her kabuki makeup often seems out of place as she tries to mingle with politicians. The film, however, commendably refrains from making the heroine a stereotypical femme fatale, and Bae's edgy fashion only defines her ambitions.
Things pick up nicely in the latter half with idiosyncratic supporting characters like Ko Chang-seok
) spicing up the intrigue and exploring the fine line between restoration and replication, and artistry and finely crafted con artistry. The director said he didn't explain characters' history because he wanted to capture the relevance of Insa-dong. However, the film could have relied more on editing to introduce the past as "Ocean's 11" did, also propelled by characters that feed directly into the narrative ― the movie is, ultimately, about items from a bygone era.