The third film from emerging Korean talent Jang Hyun-sang stars Jo Soo-hyang.
An intriguing concept can be enough to pull you into a film, but what keeps you there is a sense of purpose and steadfast execution. Korean indie Coffee Noir: Black Brown, the third film from emerging talent Jang Hyun-sang, which premiered last month in competition at Bucheon, delivers on all three counts. This delightful and odd prohibition drama is grounded by Jo Soo-hyang, whose performance remains unwavering, even when some of the story threads around her don't quite mesh.
Coffee shop manager Ju-won runs a tight ship and is revered by her staff, but their lives are about to change because of a new law coming into effect that will outlaw coffee in Korea. Despite the prying eyes of local inspectors and pressure from a decaf monopoly, she keeps the shop open: tea shop by day, java speakeasy by night.
Korean filmmakers, particularly in the indie scene, tend to have a lot to say and the further we move away from the darker times of the republic, the more direct they have become in their depictions of what they see as the ills running through society. But a direct approach isn't always the most effective route and director Jang wrings buckets of wry commentary out of his fantastical concept. Entertaining and relevant, he has his cake and eats it too, at least until we dive into a bleaker second half that doesn't give its protagonists an easy out as they are forced to confront the reality of their situation.
Largely shot in a spacious, multi-floor cafe with warm but muted tones, Coffee Noir: Black Brown is an elegant production throughout, despite its low budget. Director Jang has come a long way from the lo-fi teen comedy Neverdie Butterfly and builds on the more polished forbidden romance Kissing Cousin, from which he carries over several cast members.
Anchoring what is a uniformly strong cast, Jo exudes confidence and intelligence as Ju-won, a character whose background is slightly obfuscated but whose willpower and competence propel the story forward. Leading almost every scene, Jo is a joy to watch, no matter what obstacle is in her way.
Where Jang does run into trouble is an overload of characters and a final third that loses some of the vitality and humor of the rest of the film. Many colorful characters pop up for a scene of two, and while all these moments are well crafted and enjoyable on their own, many add little to the narrative as they pull down on Ju-won with ties that sometimes aren't clearly explained.
As things take a sharp turn for the worse, the film enters a more hopeless narrative that reflects some harsh truths of modern society. At this point several of the characters begin to lose their drive, which saps some of the film's early energy. However, when it's time for the story to end, Jang and co. offer up a different tone, which apes classic French thrillers and manages to stay in keeping with what we've already seen. The melancholia doesn't quite reach the cool of Melville, but brings this unique tale to a worthy finish.
With its well thought-out concept and dry humor, Coffee Noir: Black Brown is a testament to Jang's distinct creativity, as well as to Jo's effortless lead actor credentials.