It's a jungle of imported saloon cars and stylish designer brands, a zoo for Korea's nouveau riche; the place to be if you want to wildly speculate on real estate, with schools possessing the kind of clout that would get a shiny tag on your son's curriculum vitae saying “I'm part of the game now.” But Gangnam also means a wild night life, theoretically throwing discrimination out of the window with its par condicio of host bars for men and women, straight or gay. Seung-Woo (Yoon Gye-Sang) has been in the game for a mere three months, but is already relishing all the benefits, still unaware of the price he'll eventually have to pay.
His daily sessions begin with putting the finishing touches on his backswing, some shopping and the customary trip to a health's club, before embarking on a night spent giving cheap pleasure and getting quick money, a lot of it, in return. But Seung-Woo is not just your average mortal from north of the river, trying to make a buck and eventually opting out of the jungle. His past of a well-off family fallen into a crisis has become a present full of questions he can't really answer. His father is now dating a younger woman, his sister has become a hostess just like him, and actually introduced him to the game through her boyfriend Jae-Hyeon (Ha Jung-Woo). And, of course, all the complexes his past created are starting to get the better of him.
Stylish, confident and free-spirited “Madam” (the hosts' team manager, so to speak) at night; a volcano ready to erupt thanks to debts, a gambling bug and the gloomy prospect of getting your finger hit with a wrench by a loan shark by day, Jae-Hyeon only has his experience to thank. Prepping the 공사 (host-bar slang for conning money out of clients) that could save his bacon, his relationship with Han-Byeol (Lee Seung-Min) is getting increasingly tense, which inevitably influences how he deals with her brother Seung-Woo. They say never mix business with pleasure, but that's exactly what these two players end up doing. Feeling disconnected and upset by the emptiness surrounding his nighttime romps, Seung-Woo finds solace in Ji-Won (Yoon Jin-Seo), a hostess herself, and the two start living together. Can the lines between business and personal get that blurred? Can anybody who sells fake sentiments and intimacy for a shower of white checks really keep a serious relationship? And can those animals trapped by the jungle really escape, and stare at the sky, to see what the moonlight really looks like?
Few directors of recent memory had as impressive a debut as what Yoon Jong-Bin achieved with 용서받지 못한 자 (The Unforgiven) in 2005. More than a simple critique of the FUBAR sensibilities at play during military life, the film built an authentic skeleton out of such wasteful vestiges of the 20th Century, and made the group mentality at the center of it all feel like a character with strong sociological tints, enveloping everyone inside. At the center of such a human corrida were those playing the matador, like Ha Jung-Woo's Tae-Jeong, and the ones running against the current, in an atmosphere where you'd rather get killed than stray off the pack's chosen path. That the matador would feel emptiness and remorse after the game is something not too many films would even bother with, because a superficial critique of the system would usually suffice. But Yoon delved deeper into the real problem, which is not necessarily the military itself, but the burdensome cult of 집단주의 (group mentality) which still permeates Korean culture in all of its manifestations.
A voracious reaction filled with awards at the PIFF seemed to pave the way for a new enfant prodige in Chungmuro, but things didn't go exactly that way. There are directors who have no problem focusing their efforts on the Festival crowd if they end up tasting sour grapes at home (Kim Ki-Duk would be a good example). But for many up and comers the new, post-boom landscape of Chungmuro is harder to digest, if your desire is to communicate something to domestic viewers through your films. There are art-film oriented theater chains all right, but it's no more than a cultural ghetto, with tabloid journalists treating those 10,000 ticket sellers next to 10 million behemoths with the same nuances of a sport columnist talking about the Special Olympics. With last year's 디워 (D-War) vs Jin Jung-Kwon fiasco showing how out of reach film critics are with the hordes of “event-seeking” moviegoers invading theater chains, it's not so hard to see why Yoon's sophomore project would be full of problems right from the beginning, despite the deserved acclaim coming from the critical sphere. And that's not necessarily all because of the current climate in Korean Cinema. Yoon himself could have smelled the roses beforehand, do what he really wanted, and then deal with the thorns later.
The idea was to, in many ways, bring what made The Unforgiven so great to a larger audience, deciding to shoot with a bigger budget and stars with name value. What Yoon couldn't (or just didn't) predict was all the added baggage which comes with shooting the commercial way these days. Perhaps, if it was a low-budget film with no stars and no ambition to succeed, this film could have been just as good as his debut. But this is not 2003, when something like 바람난 가족 (A Good Lawyer's Wife) could go all the way, bank on its director and cast's clout, get investors to respect their vision and then even do well at the box office. You can't blame everything on younger moviegoers increasingly losing interest in film as art and culture, treating the medium as background noise in between French kisses and popcorns. It's the whole industry, now full of people who have very little to do with the “filmmaker” mentality and just there for the money, that's to blame. Yoon's first raw cut was over the two and a half hours mark, it was very likely going to get stamped with a “18 and over” rating, and according to Ha Jung-Woo helped the characters settle inside the skeleton, the jungle of host bars Yoon had so carefully prepared, living for a couple of months as a waiter in Gangnam to smell the breeze there.
But, go figure. A change of producers mid-flight, a collection of funding problems that would make Gong Su-Chan of GP506 (The Guard Post) nod in sympathy, and the added extra of Ha Jung-Woo's newfound stardom thanks to 추격자 (The Chaser). Suddenly, making 비스티 보이즈 (The Moonlight of Seoul) into something Yoon Jong-Bin wanted to communicate to the viewers wasn't so easy after all. This is in fact something that, at least potentially, could have become a valid follow up to The Unforgiven. Essentially, if you look at the structure of the film, we're dealing with similar factors: the jungle-like environment (military vs host bar nightlife in Gangnam), the matador adapting to the game despite the inner grief and regret (Ha Jung-Woo in both), and then the one who just can't, getting bit in the ass and slowly falling into the abyss (first Seo Jang-Won, now Yoon Gye-Sang). It has that beautifully unpolished sense of realism which is so sorely lacking in current Korean cinema; the almost complete lack of music, or emotional pinpoints trying to prostitute the film's message at all costs, lest those who couldn't find a seat for the latest Hollywood flick and chose this for their evening petting session would go home disappointed.
It has moments of brilliance, of explosive rage which start burning the film it was shot on; some quietly beautiful moments, and at least two monster performances. Yet, if The Unforgiven was like a tiny missile hitting Chungmuro with the rage of an atomic bomb, The Moonlight of Seoul had the same ballistic power, carried by a shuttle but exploding mid-flight, some of the pieces hitting home, some disintegrating into thin air without any significant consequence. One could fault those “stolen” 40 minutes, no matter who is to blame (the request to trim the fat certainly came from the producers, but it was Yoon and his editor who made the final decisions). But there's simply too much material here feeling like a fish out of water, making the characters' behavior feel forced more than something caused by the environment, entrapping them into a situation and reactions they can't avoid.
If The Unforgiven wasn't enough, this film showed Yoon Jong-Bin can truly get the best out of Ha Jung-Woo (perhaps because they're close friends), in ways that get rid of the tiny problems the good acting shown in other films and dramas showed. Ha was simply incredible in the 2005 film, with the charisma and panache of walking fuel, fire following him around wherever he went, whatever he did. He's the same here: it's acting that's organic, explosive. Tremendously realistic, but at the same time driving the characters' message home. Although he started acting in the early part of this decade, it was really Yoon's debut which showed how promising an actor he could become. What's interesting about him is his choice of projects, which always seems to defy expectations. After The Unforgiven and Kim Ki-Duk's 시간 (Time), you would have thought he'd become one of those actors a la Jang Hyun Seong, mostly dealing with indie films and the occasional character acting in bigger productions.
But then he goes out and shoots the quirky 구미호 가족 (The Fox Family), and even the TV police procedural 히트 (H.I.T.), testing his English skills in the middle with 두 번째 사랑 (Never Forever). Especially looking at H.I.T., you can feel why so many film actors have a hard time starring on TV Dramas. It's not a mere discrimination, it's more a matter of adapting to the medium. With films, the location and camera work often become characters of their own, and actors interact with their environment in a very active, organic way. On TV, unless you're dealing with a Kim Jin-Min or Kwak Jung-Hwan, it's mostly the writer and actors' job to make that “movement” possible. Dialogue and facial expression rule supreme, and Ha probably felt a little caged by the limitations of the medium, like a journalist in a tuxedo shot from the bust up, wearing jogging pants and sandals underneath. Ha would act with his whole body, but the camera couldn't, or decided not to get the whole picture, so the results were a little disappointing (of course with that script, we can't really blame the actors). But when it comes to films like The Unforgiven, Ha is at his best, the seemingly effortless cinema-verite nuances of his acting dominating the entire screen.
Equally impressive, albeit in a much more different way, is Yoon Jin-Seo's performance. After her turn in 올드보이 (Oldboy) she's mostly been dealing with lighter roles, like in 슈퍼스타 감사용 (Superstar Mr. Gam) or the lovely 내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일 (All for Love). Still, after 바람피기 좋은 날 (A Day for an Affair) and the putrid horror 두 사람이다 (Someone Behind You), it's clear she's starting to mature out of the cute, sweet twenty-something aura she was oozing all over for the last half decade. Some of that aura still remains in The Moonlight of Seoul, but there's also a lot more confidence in her delivery and the way she captures the screen. Also, despite the significant cuts some of those scenes went through, she handled a couple of very difficult spots (particularly the one where she turns a rape into something part of her job routine, as if nothing happened) with the kind of charisma even more prestigious and experienced colleagues would have a hard time displaying.
For what concerns Yoon Gye-Sang, the verdict is a little less positive. To understand why, we can just go back to the reason Ha Jung-Woo didn't quite make it on TV, except this time it's the opposite. Yoon, a former member of boy band G.O.D., spent a career focusing on his appearance and putting extreme weight on everything he did on the screen, first with his dance moves, and later on TV for his few drama appearances. Whereas things in 발레 교습소 (Flying Boys) somehow worked, perhaps because he wasn't paying attention to those elements, it didn't go so well neither here nor on 6년째 연애중 (Lovers of 6 Years). The old cliché disparaging people who can only act on TV is that they do everything with their faces, so when you have to use the entire body, when it's the realism created interacting with your environment that counts the problems begin. Although he never really descends into poor acting, Yoon can't really rise above mediocrity, especially when his presence needs to capture the camera's attention, fact which was quite evident on his last TV outing 누구세요? (Who Are You).
Whereas Ha Jung-Woo and Yoon Jin-Seo dance along with their environment, Yoon tries way too hard to add an emotional facet to his acting, to punctuate when you just need to go with the flow. The fact the film went through so many cuts, especially dealing with Seung-Woo and Ji-Won's relationship, is partially to blame. But you never feel that sense of realism, that organic aura you get when Ha and Yoon Jin-Seo are dominating the screen. It just feels like... acting? It's kind of by the book, it kind of works. But there's no flair, no passion. It's like cooking slow food with a microwave. You're getting your 1500 calories more or less, but it feels like the food rations you get in space. No joie de vivre, just chemicals thrown together hoping you'll catch them before lack of gravity bores you to death.
The Moonlight of Seoul took its English title from a 70s short novel by Kim Seung-Wook, 서울의 달빛 0장 (The Moonlight of Seoul – Part Zero), but with it shares only the aura of Seoul's nightlife. What this film really reminds of, as many Korean critics have hinted at already, is Kim Un-Kyung's 1994 masterpiece 서울의 달 (The Moon of Seoul), one of the two-three best TV Dramas of the 90s. Starring Han Suk-Gyu, Choi Min-Shik, Chae Si-Ra and Baek Yoon-Shik, it focused on the dreams and ambitions of the lower-middle class just like many of Kim's following works, with all the darkness surrounding their lives becoming a character of its own. That idea of pitiful monsters living inside a cage (society), trying to find something decent to hold onto while they walk with fire can be felt here as well, in a very charming and realistic tone. The problem, set aside the usual limitations of each medium, is that unlike the drama you're always a spectator of what's thrown on the screen, up to the end.
Yoon said he didn't want to explain too much about the characters, in some ways mirroring the way Jae-Hyeon, Seung-Woo and Ji-Won meet each other during the course of the film. You get to know them gradually, but that's always and only the surface. It would certainly work, if the background skeleton was more than a simple layer, if the host bars of Gangnam came alive enough to explain their actions despite the mood swings. But more than monsters erupting inside a cage, the characters in The Moonlight of Seoul feel like puppets moved by the director and the actors themselves, exploding with fire every now and then. When those “predictable surprises” do come, you're not nodding with empathy at another poor soul ruined by the environment. You're just staring at the screen, experiencing the forced, inevitable conclusion of a film that could have been truly remarkable, but just ended up becoming a very fascinating misfire.
비스티 보이즈 (The Moonlight of Seoul)
a.k.a. Beastie Boys
DIRECTOR: 윤종빈 (Yoon Jong-Bin)
SCREENPLAY: 윤종빈 (Yoon Jong-Bin)
D.P.: 고낙선 (Go Nak-Seon)
MUSIC: 김홍집 (Kim Hong-Jib)
Produced by: Wire to Wire Film
Int'l Sales: Finecut Co., Ltd
122 Minutes, 35mm 2.35:1 Color
CAST: 하정우 (Ha Jung-Woo), 윤진서 (Yoon Jin-Seo), 윤계상 (Yoon Gye-Sang), 이승민 (Lee Seung-Min), 마동석 (Ma Dong-Seok), 유하준 (Yoo Ha-Joon), 권세인 (Kwon Se-In)