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Steel Cold Winter
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by Jay Seaver

"Chilly but passionate first love mystery."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Apparently the literal translation of this movie's Korean title ("Sonyeo") is simplly "Girl". Fair enough, and evocative in its own way; maybe in some ways a little better than the English-language title it's been given for the festival circuit. I like the chill of the latter, though; it helps show that this is a fairly specific mystery rather than "just" a nifty tale of a dangerous and exciting first love.

After all, the girl is the first thing that Suh Yoon-su (Kim Shi-hoo) sees of the rural village that his parents are delivering him to after a traumatic incident that makes them figure time away from Seoul would do their teenage son good; she's skating on a frozen river in her school uniform. Yoon-su proves quite popular in the tiny farming village's school, although the girl he saw, Hye-won (Kim Yoon-hye) is decidedly not - there are ugly rumors about her and her father (Jung In-gi) that have both of them shunned. Yoon-su can't resist, though, and soon finds himself in a mess that a guy who still has psychosomatic pain in his ears from his friend's suicide back home may not be set to deal with.

Not a bad little take on the "new kid comes to school, finds himself attracted to the outsider" drama canon. One thing I like that director Choi Jin-seong and writer Choi Yoon-jin did is that it's very much winter in this village; oftentimes filmmakers will set a movie like this during the school year but have the weather be temperate. The chill helps here, not just because the image of Hye-won skating are the sort of thing that one can easily see taking root in Yoon-su's head, or because the cold can serve as a genuine danger for a family as poor as Hye-won and her father, but in general attitude. I don't know if Korean has the same way of describing people as "chilly" but people do insulate themselves and do more desperate things then; it also clears out the area so that things are even more lonely for a city kid like Yoon-su.

It gives the young cast ample chance to demonstrate their intensity but do it well; Yoon-su and Hye-won don't come off as merely angsty teenagers. Kim Yoon-hye is especially great as this girl who has built a pretty firm wall around herself but can believably turn on a dime when it comes time to lash out at those tormenting her father or open up a little to Yoon-su and then... Well, this is a mystery. Kim Shi-hoo, meanwhile, is stopping well short of overacting even as he's got to double over in random pain at times or play curious against Yoon-hye's rebuff. As things get complicated, his uncertainty becomes even more believable.

The way they draw closer and at times push apart is sketched out very well, natural enough that when the movie takes a last act detour into especially disturbed territory, it's pretty easy to buy into. Things take a pretty sharp detour at a certain point, and it's the sort of thing that can sink a film, but the way that the filmmakers find something close to the sweet spot between this different part of the movie being long enough to not be a tack-on but short enough that the bulk of the film wouldn't be just a warm-up. That's not totally surprising, as director Choi and writer Choi have been doing a fine job of introducing the town's mysteries even while keeping the story firmly focused on Yoon-su and Hye-won.

It's not quite there, and there are moments when it feels like the wandering is a result of not quite being able to make the most focused version of the story carry the whole movie. That central story is still strong, though, and the mystery around it is not bad either.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27469&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/07/14 05:38:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jin-seong Choi

Written by
  Yoon-jin Choi

Cast
  Yun-hea Kim
  Si-hoo Kim
  In-sub Jang
  Hee-joon Oh
  So-dam Park



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