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'Santamaria' overly emotional, mawkish

2008/06/30 Source

How many films can a Korean director put out every year? When the industry is booming, the optimal number might be one, maybe more if they are lucky. When business is sluggish, the number is bound to shrink, and so far 2008 has been a bad year for most Korean filmmakers.

Director Jeong Yeong-bae has defied the conventional wisdom dramatically. At a time when releasing even one film is regarded as an admirable feat, he is now set to introduce his second film - "Santamaria" (Jalmot-doen man-nam) - in less than two months after the release of his debut feature, "Cherry Tomato", in May.

It is all the more surprising when you consider that "Santamaria", to be released July 10, is not the best candidate for a box-office jackpot. The movie focuses on how two men cope with an emotionally taxing mixture of mistrust, hatred and resentment, even though they were best friends when they were young.

Il-do, played by Jung Woong-in ("My Boss, My Hero"), was once an up-and-coming police detective in Seoul. For some reason, he has been sent back to his hometown, Yeongdeok, as a mere traffic cop. His current job issuing speed tickets to reckless drivers, one of whom is Ho-cheol (Sung Ji-ru), his high school buddy and now a taxi driver.

Rewind the clock to their high school days - about 15 years go - and the two were rivals for the love of the same girl. The final winner was Il-do, and Ho-cheol's romantic life was mercilessly shattered. But the fate quickly reversed their fortunes. When the two entered military service, they met again at the same base, and this time Ho-cheol emerged triumphant, with a higher military rank. Being a subordinate, Il-do had to suffer a humiliating treatment, able to do nothing about it because of Ho-cheol's superior rank.


Back to the present, Il-do sees a great chance to settle an old score. As a policeman, he has the right to penalize those who violate the sacred traffic regulations in his small town, where there are only a handful of cars to begin with. With plenty of time on his hands, Il-do tracks down Ho-cheol's taxi and catches him off guard at least a couple of times a day. Il-do's petty revenge, to the chagrin of the audience, plays out at a boringly repetitive pace. Perhaps director Jeong might have attempted to create some comic relief by repeating their awkward encounter on the screen over and over, but the result is unlikely to entertain moviegoers. After all, a policeman issuing a ticket to a taxi driver is far from funny, especially given that such traffic ticket accounts for Ho-cheol's income for that day.

The plot gains pace only when the tedious street confrontation ends, and a new development, stemming from Il-do's personal life is revealed. From this point on, director Jeong pushes for the movie's central theme more directly, posing a question about whether and how the two former friends can mend fences and reestablish their bittersweet relationship.

The problem is that the answer is too easy to figure out here. Worse, the way the conflict gets resolved is too sentimental and emotional, which comes as no welcome surprise for those expecting the straightforward comedy suggested by the promotion for the film.

What saves an otherwise bland screenplay is the impressive performance of child actor Yeo Jin-goo, who plays the son of Il-do. Yeo's heartfelt tears in the face of one family crisis after another seem very realistic and moving. The emotional deluge in "Santamaria" seems quite similar to the director's first movie, "Cherry Tomato", which also overflows with sadness, resentment and helplessness.

Director Jeong apparently prefers emotional moments in his films, but he seems unaware that emotional oversupply is not a recipe for having a real emotional impact on the audience.

By Yang Sung-jin

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