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'Last Present'

2006/04/17 Source

Viewers may find this a 'three-hankie' film

Kyu Hyun Kim (internews)

"Last Present" (2001) is a tragic romance so manipulative that you can almost hear its cogwheels and pulleys clicking and whirring like a well-oiled machine. Lee Jung-jae ("Les Insurges", "The Last Witness") plays a two-bit gagman (as a stand-up comic is known in Korea, although what the gagmen do in this film is closer to vaudeville act, more Laurel and Hardy than Robin Williams) Yong-gi, whose marriage to Jeong-yeon (Lee Young-ae of "JSA - Joint Security Area" and "One Fine Spring Day") is falling apart. A leaf is turned when he accidentally finds out that Jeong-yeon is dying from an unspecified incurable disease.

Yong-gi, initially devastated, makes a resolution to win the TV gag contest at all costs, all the while hiding the fact that he is privy to his wife's secret. Intertwined with this sappy disease-of-the-month narrative are dollops of sepia-toned flashbacks concerning Jeong-yeon's object of childhood crush: Gee, who was that cute boy that had stolen her heart in the elementary school? As Linus Van Pelt once claimed, sugar cubes doused with honey can be a delicacy. But they are better served with a pinch of cinnamon, of course. Uwek...

I readily concede that "Last Present" may be as effective as a canister of tear gas in delivering "three-hankie moments" for many viewers. Even its sub-O. Henry plot contrivances are unflinchingly presented, without embarrassment. In fact, I suspect that the filmmakers, especially newcomer director Oh Ki-hwan, self-reflectively indicate their awareness of the movie's shameless melodramatics in the climactic gag sketch, in which the protagonist is seen squeezing his tear-drenched handkerchief like a wet towel. "Last Present" is by no means an artistic triumph of any kind and I would hesitate to even call it a good movie, but it is professionally put together, fulfilling the audience expectations to a tee.

I might have felt more charitable if the pairing of Lee Jung-jae and Lee Young-ae worked out better. I personally do not think "Last Present"'s characters play to their strengths. Lee Jung-jae is not really convincing as an aspiring comic, and has trouble conveying the Chaplinesque "tears behind the smile" quality demanded by the role. (Not that he gets much help from the screenplay)

As for Lee Young-ae, even without any facial makeup, wrapped in dumpy housewife clothes, she stands out like a flawed emerald among rows of huge, immaculately shining glass beads. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I must point out that Lee is simply too beautiful: her beauty overwhelms the tritely conventional character she is stuck with. Instead of feeling sorry for Joeng-yeon, I was feeling sorry for Lee Young-ae the actress, bending backwards, nay, contorting herself, in order to play an "ordinary" woman. I mean, what's the point?

The great Japanese director Ozu Yasujiro was once criticized for repeatedly casting the radiant Hara Setsuko as an "ordinary housewife:" the critics complained that no actual Japanese housewife could possibly look as glamorous and exotic as Hara. Ozu's response was to the effect that a director should be able to use the personality and looks of an actor to create a character, going beyond simplistic "realism", and that's what he has done with Hara. Ergo, it is possible for Lee Young-ae to be convincing in a role like Jeong-yeon. I just think that it might take more than a good performance on her part.

In the end, the main pleasure of "Last Present" for me remains its solid supporting cast. Failan's Gong Hyung-jin is woefully underused but still leaves a favorable impression as Yong-gi's long-suffering stand-up partner. Veteran bit players Kwon Hae-hyo and Lee Moo-hyeon (instantly recognizable faces from many, many movies, even if you cannot remember their names) are hilarious and believable as two entertainment-industry con artists: I would have loved to see their characters expanded.

Finally, the single most moving scene in the whole movie for me was the bittersweet reunion between Jeong-yeon and her high school best friend, Ae-suk, played with restraint and skill by Koo Hye-ryeong. This small scene has the aura of truthfulness that is rather lacking in other portions of this slick but artificial tear-jerker.

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