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[MOVIE REVIEW] 'The Houseguest' overstays its welcome

2007/08/02 | 794 views | Permalink | Source

Chu Yo-sup (1902-1972) wrote the memorable short story "Saranbang sonmin-gwa eomeoni (The Guest in My Mom's House)". Published in 1935, the creative tale portrays the subtle emotional tension between a widow and a house guest from the perspective of a six-year-old girl. Emotions are intentionally suppressed, reflecting the strict social norms placed on Koreans at the time.

"Sarangbang seonsuwa eomeoni" ("The Houseguest and My Mother"), directed by Lim Yeong-seong, borrows the title from the famous short story, but does not follow the original plot. In contrast to Chu's refined storytelling, "The Houseguest and My Mother" pursues a shamelessly trite Korean filmmaking format: Different cinematic elements are crammed onto the big screen not because they are essential but because the director wants to rescue a deplorable script.

In the film, Deok-gun (Jung Joon-ho) is 100 million won in debt to gangsters thanks to his irresponsible father who is now behind bars. Desperate to pay back the money, he takes on a peculiar assignment from an old lady, for a sizable fee, and drives down to a nondescript fishing town to track down her granddaughter. Deok-gun unpacks his luggage at a boarding house run by Hye-joo (Kim Won-hee), a single mom who lives with her bright yet rebellious teenage daughter Ok-hee (Ko Eun-ah). With his search getting nowhere, Deok-gun notices that Hye-joo has saved exactly 100 million won in her bank account, and hatches a woo-and-run scheme that gets the plot rolling.

The movie juxtaposes the shattered father-son relationships with the solid mother-daughter bond in a way that stresses the importance of being part of a family. But the movie fails to introduce meaningful details about Deok-gun's relationship with his father in the prison, nor does it offer any clues about why and how Hye-joo gave birth to Ok-hee at the age of 15.

Even though there are a growing number of single moms in Korea, it is rare to see a 15-year-old girl become a mother overnight. The movie does not -- intentionally or simply out of laziness -- provide convincing background stories that explain Hye-joo's difficult circumstances.

For most Korean moviegoers, the film's casting suggests that the selling point of "The Houseguest and My Mother" is its comedy. After all, Jung Joon-ho ("My Boss, My Hero") and Kim Won-hee ("Marrying the Mafia III") are the country's leading comic actors.

Unfortunately, the movie is not a pure comedy. In the first half of the film, numerous attempts are made to generate laughter, but most of the supposedly funny scenes are either overly simplistic or embarrassingly tacky.

For instance, as with other Korean comedy films, "The Houseguest and My Mother" characters go to a noraebang, or karaoke, but their uninspired performances evoke sympathy rather than genuine laughter.

Sidekicks often use foul language for no apparent reason, along with exaggerated gestures that are hardly funny. Seong-chil (Im Hyung-joon), who has a crush on the widow, mistreats his buddies in the village, again without generating any meaningful dramatic effect. Toilet humor, inserted for dubious reasons, is simply lamentable.

Toward the end of the film, the central characters encounter a melodramatic development intended to tug at the heartstrings of the audience, but the impact is minimal at best.

"The Houseguest and My Mother" incorporates many of the old Korean filmmaking practices. Famous actors are recruited to increase its commercial odds at the box office but their acting does not exude genuinely creative energy. Nor does the hybrid genre -- a half-baked melodrama trapped in a comedy -- break any cinematic ground.

Perhaps it would have been much better if "The Houseguest and My Mother" had faithfully reflected Chu Yo-sup's short story, where the guest does not overstay his welcome.

By Yang Sung-jin

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