Retro movies rediscover colonial era

Gyeongseong is emerging as a popular background for Korean films, reflecting the public's recent penchant for retro style, and filmmakers' newfound interest in the Japanese colonial period -- evidence of their quest for fresh characters and themes.

During the Japanese colonial rule of the early 20th century, today's Seoul was called Gyeongseong. It was the very cultural center where tradition and Western modernity began to fuse.

Four new films exemplify this dipping into the past -- "Once Upon a Time", "Radio Dayz", "Modern Boy" and "The Good, the Bad, the Weird", all of which come with high-profile directors and actors. Production houses are pinning their hopes on the success of this new breed of Gyeongseong films at a time when home-grown movies face an uphill battle against Hollywood blockbusters.

In the past few decades, a host of filmmakers already used Gyeongseong as a historical setting -- but only superficially. In contrast, these upcoming films rely heavily on the cultural diversity of the period to create fantasy or induce retro feelings.

"Once Upon a Time", directed by Jeong Yong-ki and financed by SK Telecom's new film division, revolves around a hilarious treasure hunt in the 1940s, and features repartee between con artists, Japanese military officers and independence fighters. The movie begins with a top Japanese soldier finally obtaining the long-sought-after "Light of the East", a legendary diamond believed to have been placed in the forehead of the monumental statue of the Buddha inside the Seokguram Grotto in Kyungju. The great diamond is said to have mysterious power, but what's more important for thieves and con artists is its gigantic size.

Bong-gu (Park Yong-woo), a self-styled master of fraud and forgery, does not lose any time getting prepared to steal the diamond shortly before it is shipped to Japan. But he has a competitor, Chun-ja (Lee Bo-young), a jazz singer who rules the night of Gyeongseong as a masked thief.

With the retro costumes, furniture and houses evoking the era of budding modernity in Korea, "Once Upon a Time" rightly appropriately quickens its storytelling pace in a style that is rare in Korean comic movies. Particularly impressive are the solid performances of the leading characters. Park demonstrates his versatility in switching between comic and action sequences, while Lee shows off her charm as a seductress who cares more about her dream than the hard times all around her. Also notable in this film that's due to be released on Jan. 31 is the show-stealing slapstick acts by the two prominent sidekicks played by Sung Dong-il and Jo Hee-bong.

Scheduled to hit the theaters on the same day is "Radio Dayz", set in the 1930s when Korea got it first radio station. The movie does not focus on the gloomy historical facts related to the Japanese rule; instead, it highlights the romanticism of the period, typified by the launching of a Korean-language radio station.

A young radio station manager, Lloyd (Ryoo Seung-bum), undertakes a live drama series which is commissioned by the Japanese rulers. The main voice actors in this show are not professionals. A jazz musician, a courtesan and even a clueless office clerk are invited to perform in the drama, and the scripts are largely ignored, as the actors resort to liberal ad-libbing. Despite the shoddy production quality, the radio show becomes a huge hit. This movie pokes fun at the broadcasting practices of the time, as well as at Japanese rule.

Director Jeong Ji-woo's "Modern Boy" also belongs to the retro category that takes full advantage of the vibrant days of Korea, despite the suffocating control by Japan. Park Hae-il and Kim Hye-soo have joined the project set in the 1930s, with newly-introduced Western culture including cafes, coffee, and department stores featured prominently.

Although background of "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" not Gyeongseong, this one fits in the category, insofar as it's set in the 1930s. The place is Manchuria, and this Oriental western-style movie stands out with its star-studded cast. Well-known Korean Wave stars Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho and Jung Woo-sung play exotic roles -- a bandit, a train robber and a bounty hunter -- and expectations are rising concerning this big-budget flick which will be released during the summer vacation season.

By Yang Sung-jin
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