On a remote island in South Jeolla Province, a dozen students share a single classroom. Deprived of modern technology, they hardly know the difference between a bicycle and a pair of glasses. As they see it, both have two circles, and that's that.
(Seoul-i boinya), directed by debut filmmaker Song Dong-yoon
, brings back memories of pre-modern day Korea when islanders used to get by with a handful of basic tools, and rarely got out of their hometown.
Director Song, fortunately, has not fallen into the trap of stirring up romantic nostalgia. Instead, he employs a story-within-a-story structure, focusing on timeless educational issues such as what makes a good teacher and what is really needed for adventure-seeking students.
In the movie which will be released on Thursday, Gil-su (played by Lee Chang-hoon
) is a dedicated teacher who wants to take his students on a field trip during the upcoming summer vacation. But his desire to offer students the rare chance to get out of the city and into nature invites only a reproachful glare from the principal, who claims that parents wouldn't let their "busy" kids go on a field trip.
The summer vacation starts - without a field trip - and Gil-su goes back to his hometown of Sindo, a small island where he lived and learned along with his friends.
Back then, Gil-su (played by Yoo Seung-ho
) was a reserved, thoughtful and love-hungry kid who took care of his kid sister, Young-mi (Kim Yoo-jeong
), especially when their drunkard father lost his temper. Gil-su deeply missed his mom, who got fed up with island life and left the family several years before to find a new life in Seoul.
His only consolation was to dream about her at night. And his sister envied his ability to conjure up their mother's image in dreams, as she has no memory of her mother.
A positive sign came when their teacher Eun-young (Oh Soo-ah
) received a letter from a cookie factory in Seoul. Earlier, she asked for permission to visit the place as part of a field trip itinerary, and the factory said it would be happy to welcome the students.
Eun-young, however, faced a harsh reality which parallels what Gil-su experiences in the present tense of the movie. While Gil-su fails to persuade the domineering parents to allow their kids to explore nature for a day, Eun-young found it extremely difficult to persuade his fellow islanders to send their kids to the big city. In both cases, the teachers want their students to experience new things in a very different setting, but the parents see no merit to the plan.
Islanders, in particular, seem to be fearful of the possibility that, once exposed to the city and its radically different lifestyle, their children might not come back to the small island again, as happened with many of their old acquaintances who left for a fresh life in Seoul.
Eun-young's efforts were eventually rewarded, but an embarrassing development unfolded in Seoul when she went on a much-anticipated field trip with her students who were dying to try out such alluring modern contraptions as the bicycle, though they're clueless about the pernicious complexity of the city itself.
The 87-minute-long film takes its time building dramatic tension and developing likable characters; there is a pensive mood here that is lacking in many mainstream movies. Evocative close-ups also capture the preciousness of innocent friends, caring teachers and loving parents - things that should be unforgettable even in the postmodern era when a simple bicycle inspires almost nobody.
By Yang Sung-jin