[K-FILM REVIEWS] 김씨 표류기 (Castaway on the Moon)

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[K-FILM REVIEWS] 김씨 표류기 (Castaway on the Moon)

To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Now, I don't know about slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but it often makes you wonder: if you were about to hang yourself, would such determination surpass every other sudden physical and/or spiritual concern? Like, for instance, if some rather pressing bowel movements assaulted this final little mission of yours, how would you react? Such momentous dilemma is what afflicts Jung Jae-Young's "Mister Kim" in 김씨 표류기 (Castaway on the Moon), the latest work from 천하장사 마돈나 (Like a Virgin)'s Lee Hae-Joon. It's the ultimate irony: a man finds the cojones to say goodbye to all the nefarious occurrences which had so far been plaguing his existence, but that blind and elusive goddess known as providence ends up turning every attempt into a disaster.

Kim first chooses the most conventional of suicide techniques, jumping off a bridge into the Han River, like one of the poor bastards who became the little monster's hors d'œuvre in 괴물 (The Host). Result? He ends on Bamseom, one of Seoul's most peculiar sights: a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of one of the world's most populated metropolitan areas, overlooking the mecca of Korean TV, Yeouido. You'd think people would find out about such peculiar castaway, particularly considering that the islet has been off-limits to the populace ever since 1999, for the sake of natural preservation. But no, he's completely, utterly ignored. And then his second suicide attempt is blessed with the impending and uncompromising gravitas of stomach convulsions. Which brings back the question. To be, or not to be.

"병신. 죽지도 못합니다.
(Retard. You can't even die)"

Is this really the ultimate consummation, something to be so devoutly wished for? Are Kim's suicide attempts a final, one-way method of communication directed at a world which has so far ignored him? If they are, would this clamorous act manage to communicate something to a society which had always trampled on him, or would it just end as a teardrop in the ocean? And once you realize such dilemma, is suicide and its alleged resolutory effects still that much of a viable option? The routine is more or less the same: corporate restructuring, untimely termination, heavy debts which start to strangle one's social life and one by one take away all the people close to you, like petals dropping from a withering flower. And then, the final decision.

Lee Hae-Joon's choice of letting quick and clever pills of ironic wisdom guide his story in the form of narration is quite ingenious, particularly considering how the hilarity which ensues is always mixed with the bittersweet realization that, well, such is life. You'd think that a film in which over two thirds of the dialogue consist of voiceovers would water down the impact of the story. Yet, just like Wong Kar-Wai's 重慶森林 (Chungking Express), this excess of voiceover actually ends up helping the film tremendously, lending a great hand in terms of pacing, comic and dramatic timing. This kind of storytelling prowess would be quite surprising for a young director, but Lee had proven his knack for snappy dialogue many years before he even got the chance to sit on the director's chair. He was in fact a successful and eclectic writer in Chungmuro ever since 2000, when he debuted in the industry with the script for Kim Jee-woon's 커밍아웃 (Coming Out).

This was one of three digital short films exclusively distributed on the 'net to promote its diffusion, right before the Kim DJ-led reforms turned Korea into one of the leading forces in worldwide broadband infrastructure. Other than Kim's short, where the "coming out" doesn't really refer to what you think (I'll just say a keyword, lest it might spoil the whole thing: "blood"), this project also featured Ryu Seung-Wan's cult ode to Shaw Brothers flicks, Jackie Chan and the machismo kitsch of Korea's 1970s actioners in 다찌마와리 (Dachimawa Lee), but also Jang Jin's 극단적 하루 (A Terrible Day), a sort of appetizer for 킬러들의 수다 (Guns & Talks). Lee continued writing comedies, penning the draft of Kim Sang-Jin's hit 2001 jopok comedy 신라의 달밤 (Kick the Moon), and the ingloriously underrated 풍행제로 (Conduct Zero), one of the better coming of age comedies of the 2000's.

The following two years would once again be spent writing more mainstream fare, certainly, but Lee never really "sold out," like many talented writers and/or short film directors do once the majors knock at the door. His first melodrama 안녕 UFO (Au Revoir, UFO) had its charms despite all the cliches, and while 아라한 장풍 대작전 (Arahan) is certainly not known for its dialogue, it's nonetheless brimming with the irony and verve which always ooze from every Ryu Seung-Wan film. Lee's magnum opus before turning director, although he shared writing credits with the more acclaimed Bong Joon-Ho and director Im Pil-Sung, is without a doubt the 2005 shocker 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal), one of the very best debut films Korea has ever graced us with, possessing disarming pathos and raw beauty like few other works do. But even those well versed in his exploits as a young script wiz were likely surprised by his film debut, completed alongside his eternal partner in crime, writer/director Lee Hae-Young. Like a Virgin was very eclectic and in many ways unpredictable, telling the story of a young man who turns to ssireum competitions to fund his sex change operation. Although the peculiarity of the subject theme might have won the film some points by itself, what really stood out was how organic and confident its storytelling felt, not to mention the very solid production values and excellent acting from Ryu Deok-Hwan, Kim Yoon-Seok and Lee Sang-Ah.

Just like Min Gyu-Dong and Kim Tae-Yong "separated" after 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 (Memento Mori), the two Lee parted ways professionally, with Lee Hae-Young embarking on the ambitious manhwa adaptation 29년 (29 Years), which realistically went belly up for funding problems (although producers are still adamant that it was only postponed), and Lee Hae-Joon with his solo debut, Castaway on the Moon. You can instantly find a trait d'union between this and Lee's debut work behind the camera, as we're once again dealing with personalities far outside the mainstream trying to communicate something in their own, special way. The difference, in this case, is that while Oh Dong-Gu's differences and desire to communicate them were somewhat innate, what the two Kim's of the story end up experiencing are differences this modern Korean society subjected them to, like social ostracism and the warts of class consciousness solely based on money.

"아무도 없으면, 외롭지 않으니까요.
(Because if no one is there, you won't be lonely)"

Yes, two, because on the other side of the "moon" is a certain "Miss Kim," a young hikikomori who has been spending years confined inside her room, her lone means of communication the cell phone messages she sends to her mother from behind locked doors, and the mendacious personal interaction she enjoys on the Internet, creating a glamorous alter ego of herself to fly away from the gloom of reality. Her daily façade on social networking hubs like Cyworld, her unhealthy dieting habits and even ad-hoc workouts (giving her the illusion of living a normal, productive life) become a carefully planned routine, a repetitive yet soothing psychological safety net pushing into the abyss of oblivion all those inner demons about her future and identity that she would never want to face again; inner and outer demons like the scar on her forehead, a clear telltale of what might have caused this self-inflicted confinement, considering how crazy about image Korean society has become.

So what we start with are two social outcasts, reaching this peculiar destination in different ways, but nonetheless abandoned by society with the same disarming nonchalance. Mister Kim's last hopes of finding someone to call for help are met with:
1) a 119 operator, reacting with a no BS "ohh... the prank call of the hour. Yawn"-like aplomb to Kim's cries of "I'm stranded on a deserted island, in the middle of the Han River, you know, right under the bridge. Come and save me, dammit."
2) his (now former) girlfriend, reminding him that being an ass is still much better than being a penniless loser. At least you can feel miserable while being surrounded by money.
3) one of those heavenly-pitched female voices of doom, promoting some unlikely event which "certainly, dear costumer. Available all over the country, including (uninhabited) islands." What to do, if not going for the good old "necktie around the tree branch" deal? But then the unfathomable happens. Right at the moment of truth, when your life flashes by at 24 frames per second and prepares you for that oh-so profound final moment... ahh. Diarrhea. Whims of an indigestion from a few moons past, bestowing divine retribution upon you. Mon Dieu, you can't even die in peace here.

Although by no means a complex film, Castaway on the Moon is quite an ambitious little flick, for the simple reason that it banks most of its running time on its high concept, this bizarro-world Robinson Crusoe abandoning his suicidal whims simply because it wouldn't bring that spiritual and psychological quid pro quo that he was looking for. Narratively speaking, the structure is more or less the same routine drenching every castaway flick: you feel like a fish out of water at first, slowly adapt to the surroundings and eventually make it your everyday life, until the third act kicks in and forces you to make a choice. While Mister Kim's growth is delved into, we also get a sort of side view, Miss Kim discovering his shenanigans and using that as the incipit of a personal growth of her own. But what makes this all stand out is how ironical and diverting Mister Kim's journey is. It is literally filled to the brim with clever lines (dialogue is a joy to witness, but quite a few gags will be inevitably lost in translation), reminding of Jang Jin's straight-faced, theater-influenced black comedy, and rarely falling into over-dramatic and sanctimonious "great little moments," like Hollywood would serve you with. I mean, the small step for Mister Kim and giant leap for humanity is... wait for it, homemade black noodles.

"모기의 화석에서 공룡의 DNA를 축출해 쥬라기공원을 만들 확률과 새똥에서 밀의 씨앗을 찾아 짜장면을 만들 확률 중 어느것이 더 높을까요?
(Is it more likely to build a Jurassic Park using dinosaur DNA extracted from the fossil remains of mosquitoes, or to make jjajangmyeon (black noodles) finding wheat seeds inside bird shit?)"

Also, in some ways, Castaway on the Moon feels like an upgraded, comedy version of Jang Yoon-Hyun's jazzy and deliciously subtle urban-melodrama from 1997, 접속 (The Contact). We're dealing with a completely different social reality, yes, but having two alienated characters communicate to each other via a medium that isn't direct dialogue (chatting in The Contact, messages in a bottle and writing on the sand here), a sort of McGuffin keeping them apart for the majority of the film, gives very similar vibes. And, at the end of the day, communication is always the final goal. Whether this film was able to communicate its message, that's probably another story, but the effort was clearly there. I'm not just talking about the ingenious dialogue and the quirky and relentless comic timing, praise should also be directed at the cast.

Or maybe I should just say to Jung Jae-Young and Jung Ryeo-Won (two Jung for the two Kim? I guess it's just a coincidence). Take out the two minute cameo by Yang Mi-Kyung as Miss Kim's mother, moments by the hilarious Chinese delivery man and a few other characters, and we're essentially dealing with a ship operated by two figures alone. Praising Jung Jae-Young would be kind of futile, considering how long he's worked with Jang Jin and in comedy settings. This type of grumpy, self-critical brand of black comedy suits him like a glove, and he plays Mister Kim perfectly, from the most embarrassing moments to the few glorious ones. But the other Jung does quite a good job as well, surprisingly so.

Surprise because she never really got the chance to expand her range, develop fundamentals or even sense the need for it. After a short-lived past as a singer (if you call those talentless dance groups shaking their behind on TV "music"), she moved to full time acting in 2004, reaching stardom in 2005 with the cult sitcom 안녕, 프란체스카 (Hello, Francesca) and the superhit 내 이름은 김삼순 (My Lovely Sam-Soon). Two years of dubious choices followed, with the catastrophic flop 가을 소나기 (Autumn Shower) and the vanilla 넌 어느 별에서 왔니 (Which Star did You Come From) on TV along with the insipid rom-com 두 얼굴의 여친 (Two Faces of My Girlfriend), cementing the possibility of a downward spiral for the young starlet. Yet, both this film and the terribly unlucky TV sageuk 자명고 (Princess Jamyung) were not only a step in the right direction for Jung, she finally has begun showing some acting muscles. Just for this role alone, she lost a ton of weight and even experienced living inside a tent for days, to better convey the sense of isolation her character required. Her performance in Princess Jamyung was characterized by ups and downs - surprisingly good during the first two acts, sorely lacking in the third, when the charisma and screen presence sageuk require just wouldn't emerge, which in part affected the drama, if SBS' idiotic mistreatment of the entire production wasn't enough - but this is without a doubt her best performance to date, down to the finest details.

"요만큼도 안되냐? 진짜 요만큼인데..
(I can't even do this much? It's just this much...)"

Still, this film could certainly have been better. There is no doubt it started from a great premise and ran with it for two acts with endearing panache and comic timing, but things start to slightly fall apart by the third act. It's not that the film suddenly turns bad, it's more a slightly uncomfortable sensation that the smile which still graces your face is more a carry-over effect, dramatic momentum from the first two acts still lingering on, making you close an eye on the fact that Miss Kim, as the minutes go on, feels more like an inevitable piece of the narrative puzzle to conclude Mister Kim's character arc, more than a character with an independent life of its own. This asymmetry concerns impact more than any structural problem, because in terms of personal growth, what Miss Kim goes through is just as important (and gradually achieved, complete with the proverbial insecurity before the final mile) as Mister Kim's journey of discovery. Despite all the crescendo and the good feelings the film evokes on its way to the end, the finale still feels a little flat, like an inevitable conclusion you knew would come, reeking a bit of cheap humanism. Sad, because with a finale showing a little more spice - a la, say, 지구를 지켜라! (Save the Green Planet!) - this could have turned into a true jewel.

But, then again, maybe it wouldn't have mattered anyhow. Saved at the last minute by, of all people, Kang Woo-Suk, Castaway on the Moon managed to get the 3 billion won in production costs nobody seemed ready to throw at this kind of film, and ended up recouping less than half of its final 5 billion investment, with a rather disappointing 700,000 odd tickets sold. That's the post-screen quota atmosphere for you, and perhaps the major reason why the mid-sized film doesn't work anymore in Chungmuro. The huge blockbusters might end up losing some money on certain occasions, but with their insanely wide releases, things generally go pretty well, extremely so in cases like 해운대 (Haeundae). Easily digestible and somewhat "sincere" commercial flicks which manage to create word of mouth are doing much better as of late, with low budget/high concept affairs like 과속스캔들 (Scandal Makers) and 7급 공무원 (My Girlfriend is an Agent) particularly standing out.

The masters, well, they always remain on par, at least when it comes to huge names like Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho -- even Hong Sang-Soo's latest, ultra-low budget 잘 알지도 못하면서 (Like You Know it All) broke even. And now we have the added bonus of newfound vigor and interest in independent cinema, with the exploits of 워낭소리 (Old Partner) and Yang Ik-Joon's miracle 똥파리 (Breathless) making money like no indie film has ever done before. But how about all which stands in the middle? The eclectic commercial hits which once easily hit the 1 million, or the curious, bold genre flicks which somehow managed to emerge victorious?

With the virtual vanishing of the screen quota, what has crumbled is not so much the marketability of the industry, or even diversity per se. Those who want to do something different can go the indie way, shoot HD and get actors who will agree to work for next to nothing. As long as insane genre flicks like 차우 (Chaw) are being made and the masters keep getting the chance to flex their creative muscles, we'll still get good and great cinema out of the land of ubiquitous kimchi. The problem with the quota, as I suggested on that terrible day when the law was passed, is mostly psychological. Because of the quota's absence, less risks are allowed by the investors, and unless you're backed by majors with film people at the helm (in this case, whatever you can say about him as a director, Kang Woo-Suk is a good producer) or your name is synonym with "Hollywood is drooling over my films every day and twice on Sundays," then you're going to get looks of skepticism from venture capital and other investment venues.

It's really a matter of communication, because viewers will respond to quality and irreverence when they're served with it properly -- see 추격자 (The Chaser). But unless something changes in the industry, allowing mid-sized budgets built around creative ideas to thrive in a more open environment, then the days when you could find a gem for every half dozen Korean films on release (remember 2003? Feels so distant) will never grace us again. It goes back to that question, then. Would you rather see one or two safe blockbusters filled with CG and big stars make huge money, hitting the other smaller and medium sized film on release with the force of a tsunami? Or see a good number of 2-3 million ticket-selling quality films break even, somewhat restoring a little bit of that faith lost in the screen quota debacle, so that investors will be convinced to once again finance riskier projects? To be or not to be, that is always the question....


김씨 표류기 (Castaway on the Moon)
Director: 이해준 (Lee Hae-Joon)
Screenplay: 이해준 (Lee Hae-Joon)
D.P.: 김병서 (Kim Byung-Seo)
Music: 김홍집 (Kim Hong-Jib)
Produced by: BanzakBanzak
Int'l Sales: CJ Entertainment
116 Minutes, 35mm 1.85:1 Color
Release: 05/14/2009 (12 and Over)
CAST: 정재영 (Jung Jae-Young), 정려원 (Jung Ryeo-Won), 양미경 (Yang Mi-Kyung)

Castaway on the Moon

  • Hae-jun Lee
  • Hae-jun Lee (screenplay)
  • Jae-yeong Jeong
  • Ryeowon Jung
  • Yeong-seo Park
  • Mi-kyeong Yang
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Hae-jun LeeJae-yeong JeongRyeowon JungYeong-seo ParkMi-kyeong YangDramaRomance

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