Just when it seemed like star power was starting to fade in Korea, a new vehicle for two of the nation's most popular performers danced its way into the spotlight, enchanting four million local viewers in the process. Late last year and earlier this year a host of people (I among them) were calling out Korean stars for their failure to attract audiences to domestic cineplexes. Song Kang-ho, normally the country's most reliable star, misfired with Hindsight (2011), the first film in over a decade from Lee Hyeon-sun (Il Mare, 2000) and a short while later, Countdown drew even less receipts despite starring what should have been a potent combo with Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine, 2007; The Housemaid, 2010) and Jeong Jae-yeong (Castaway on the Moon, 2009). Since the star system has been powerful for so long, arguably too long a time, this shift in what drives a spectator to a theater has been seen as audiences' rejection of the less than-stellar features that the studios marched into the multiplexes, especially hollow blockbusters and these empty star vehicles (though personally I thought the above two films were a little better than what most people made them out to be).
So why did Dancing Queen do so well? Simply put, and following on from the last point, it's a much better film that was far more engaging. One could then argue that it was the quality of the work and not the stars that brought it widespread attention. I think it's both as without the quality this would likely have suffered a similar fate to Countdown and Hindsight but without the stars I don't think it would have caught on in any meaningful way. Dancing Queen is a movie about stars and its success lies in how easily we identify with its leads.
However, I don't mean to say that the film's charm would be lost on western viewers who will likely not be familiar with Uhm Jung-hwa and Hwang Jeong-min. They are such excellent performers and so well cast here that this phenomenon should translate well to any audience. You know you're watching two big stars and despite its relatively straightforward story, it does feel like an event picture.
Of the two, Uhm Jung-hwa has the highest profile, her fame given an extra boost by the fact that she was a popular singer too. Throughout her film career, she has taken on a series of dark roles, most notably in Princess Aurora (2005), Insadong Scandal (2009) and Bestseller (2010), but she has famous for her roles in romance and melodrama, such as Marriage Story (1992) Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002) and Mama (2011). While she hasn't been a fulltime singer in a over a decade, after choosing to focus on her film career, Uhm is still viewed as the Queen of Korean pop. There couldn't really be a better fit than Dancing Queen (the title of which alludes to her real status as a former idol) for her ample talents.
Hwang Jeong-min on the other hand is a very different type of actor. He has one of the most unique physiognomies of a Korean thespian and his brash, funny and often charming style has seen him playing gangsters (A Bittersweet Life, 2005), unfaithful husbands (A Good Lawyer's Wife, 2003), detectives (Bloody Tie, 2006; Private Eye, 2009; The Unjust, 2010) and reporters (Moby Dick, 2010). Although my favorite of his roles (and I know many will agree with me) is in the delightful and surprising A Man Who Was Superman (2007). In Dancing Queen he brings his charm to the plate and hits it out of the park, he and Uhm are in sync the whole way through and complement their very opposing characters to a tee.
K-pop lords over entertainment in Korea but the truth is that it has never made a big impression in cinema. While Korean films frequently feature Korean music, those that focus on the industry in any meaningful have mostly been drab affairs and they have been whole-heartedly rejected by spectators. It's tempting to say that Dancing Queen has broken this trend. In a sense it has but with no greater claim to being a trailblazer than last Sunny. The nostalgia is probably more important than the music.
However, the reason that I think the film really took off is that at its heart, it's really just a very pleasant screwball comedy. It has two big stars playing pleasant protagonists with clearly demarcated characteristics, the story is fun, involving and easy to follow but the stakes are never to high. Considering that I am such a fan of classics like Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) it is no wonder that I fell under the film's spell but it also means that most should be able to enjoying this charming film, it's not for nothing that the above are considered timeless classics.
Dancing Queen is Lee Seok-hoon's first feature in five years and though I haven't seen his previous two films but both were well-received if not outright hits. His time off doesn't seem to have affected his craft in the slightest. Given the quality and confidence of the proceedings I would have assumed he'd been chugging away all this time. In any case, I look forward to watching his other films because if they're anything like his latest, I'll be dancing in my seat. Though it will likely not stand as one of the year's very best films, Dancing Queen is a delight, pure and simple.