Just as the taste of a madeleine triggers a rush of childhood memories for the protagonist in Marcel Proust's magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, smells, sounds and images can transport all of us to different times in our lives. This is a trick that can be especially effective in cinema, as it can turn a film into a communal experience for theatergoers. With Lunar New Year just around the corner, the 80s rural-set high school film Hot Young Bloods, the return of Running Turtle (2009) director Lee Yeon-woo, is hoping to do just that.
Joong-gil, the Casanova of his high school, struts around the sun-drenched countryside wooing girls with his easy charm. The school's toughest girl, the spunky Young-sook, has a crush on Joong-gil but fails to grab his attention. One girl who does get under his skin is So-hee, an innocent new student who has just transferred from the city, yet she spurns his persistent advances. Meanwhile, tough guy Gwang-sik isn't happy about Young-sook's interest in Joong-gil.
Colorful and lively, Hot Young Bloods gets off on the right foot with its delightfully over-the-top approach to standard teen romance conventions. Caricatured and hyper-stylized, its brings to mind the high school romp No Manners (2002), featuring a young Ryoo Seung-bum and Kong Hyo-jin, or Arvin Chen's recent Taiwanese confection You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011). It's full of bluster and boasts some young stars delivering crowd-pleasing turns that play off, accentuate and also lampoon their public personas. But the thing that really ties everything together is the film's terrific soundtrack. Full of energetic Korean rock tunes and crooning ballads from that era, they are a far cry from the manufactured pop of today's music industry. The music immediately draws you in, combining with the narrative to create a quick tempo.
Alas, the film's second half, with its central love triangle and an unnecessary diversion into a dilemma in Joong-gil's family, feels just like any other run-of-the-mill Korean drama as it goes through the motions at a pace that seems glacial when compared with its initial alacrity. There are still some choice moments, but for the most part the darker tone and uninspired plotting betrays the film's strong start. I'm guessing the filmmakers were hoping for something along the lines of Sunny (2011), a film that switched from lighter comedy to darker drama as it progressed and still lost none of its charm. However, that film had a stronger emotional core beneath its pristine exterior that enabled that transformation.
Leading the picture is the enormously popular Lee Jong-suk, who has appeared in a lot of recent films, includingas As One (2012) and The Face Reader. But his performances, replete with blank expressions and soft movements, have done little to capture my imagination. Given the chance to stretch his wings here with a more fully realized, not to mention fun character, he delivers what is easily his best work, showing he has the chops to entertain not just the young girls who swoon over his graceful features. Park Bo-young, star of last year's A Werewolf Boy, already proved her comic skills alongside Cha Tae-hyun in 2008's Scandal Makers. Playing the gutsy Young-sook, Park strikes a great balance between tough and vulnerable. What's more, the two stars play off each other well.
In the last few years the nostalgia device has been used to great effect in Korean cinema. Films like Sunny and Architecture 101 (2012), by employing split narratives for the past and present, have met with considerable success and Lotte Entertainment will be looking to draw in those same crowds with Hot Young Bloods. With its 80s timeline and soundtrack, rural setting and dialect and popular young stars, Hot Young Bloods is a ride that is very much worth taking, even though I would have liked to see a few tangents lopped off to deliver a zippier 90-minute ride. Full of gusto, the film displays an energy that is seldom seen in Korean cinema these days, it's just a shame that it couldn't carry it through to the end.