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[MOVIE REVIEW] Unification theme mixed with small town comedy

2007/08/09 | 644 views | Permalink | Source

A remote village nestled near the heavily fortified border that divides South and North Korea is not a popular place. But "Mannamui Gwangjang (Meeting Square)" ("Underground Rendez-vous"), a film set in the 1980s and directed by Kim Jong-jin, attempts to make it at least a meaningful place where families gather together in a peculiar way.

In the film, Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), who lives on an obscure island, has a big dream: becoming a teacher in a big city. Befitting his ambition, he cannot stand anybody near him committing an immoral act. He is, after all, a paragon of morality and virtue who sets high standards in society -- a core quality that he believes he needs to be a good teacher.

The trouble is that he fails to pass every exam he takes to become a teacher. Apparently, the state does not consider his virtuous life in screening good teachers. Undaunted, Young-tae moves to Seoul in the hopes of preparing for the exam more seriously, but the very moment he arrives at Seoul Station -- a dangerous place for unsuspecting islanders -- touches off something he least expects.

Helped by mere luck (or misfortune), he stumbles into a training program titled "Samcheong Gyoyukdae", which Young-tan wrongly takes for "Samcheong Education University". Samcheong Gyuyukdae, however, is not meant for teacher wannabes. It existed in the 1980s during the military dictatorship in Korea, and it was a notorious boot camp designed to punish dissenters.

Another lucky turn sends Young-tan to a village where he is mistaken for a teacher, while the real teacher (played by Ryoo Seung-bum) is lost in woods packed with land mines.

From this point on, the film mixes comedy and semi-mystery, with villagers led by the town chief (Im Hyun-sik) acting weirdly. The puzzle, which is not hard to unravel for most Korean audiences, manages to get the plot rolling, with Young-tan falling in love with a beautiful yet bad-tempered girl Seon-mi (Park Jin-hee).

To Young-tan's dismay, the town chief and his sister-in-law Seon-mi seem to be having an affair, a classic comedy of misunderstanding that introduces a chain of unexpected events.

Many of the village scenes are reminiscent of "Welcome to Dongmakgol", and the villagers' innocent -- at least superficially -- behaviors are tailored for lighthearted comic scenes.

But the refreshing theme of the decades-long division on the Korean Peninsula is not a dominant factor in the film, largely because it is the main characters that shore up the drama. Im Chang-jung shows off his trademark dashing act to the full, while Im Hyun-sik showcases what only an experienced actor can do for the big screen.

Intermittently, the ill-fated real teacher played by Ryoo Seung-bum injects real humor into the otherwise flat storyline. Ryoo's performance is undoubtedly a showstopper here, with his gags getting funnier and funnier toward the end after he steps on a landmine and has to deal with the lethal crisis deep inside a forest in total isolation.

"Mannamui Gwangjang" ("Underground Rendez-vous"), produced by CY Film, is scheduled to be released nationwide on Aug. 15.

By Yang Sung-jin

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