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Once in a Summer
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by Jay Seaver

"Korea's summer of love."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: The late 1960s were a tumultuous time in Korea's history (but what part of the 20th Century wasn't?). That's a non factor through much of "Once in a Summer", which is a likable if kind of lightweight romance... at least until its characters find themselves on the wrong campus at the wrong time.

Yun Suk-young (Lee Byung-hun) isn't politically active himself; he's joined service-oriented club and raises his hand in unison with the crowd as he tries to study (wearing earplugs) in the middle of a rally, but it's as much about rebelling against his rich, conservative father as it is conviction. That's how he winds up spending his summer break on a service project in the countryside, where he meets Suh Jung-in (Su-ae). Jung-in is pretty, but the locals give her a wide berth; she's tainted by her father defecting to the north a few years earlier. Sparks wind up flying, but vacations must end, and when the students return to the north, their connections causes problems for Suk-young when police round up students following a protest.

We know that Suk-young and Jung-in aren't going to live happily every after; a present-day framing sequence featuring Lee Se-eun and Yu Hae-jin as a former student of now-Professor Yun and the reality-show producer she works for places the romance firmly in the past tense. That structure does its job of adding a little mystery and melancholy to the story, but it sometimes jumbles the flow of the movie: It shows up a little too often in the beginning and though I'm glad it disappears for an extended period, that makes its return a little jarring. The make-up people, it's worth mentioning, do a fine job of aging Lee-Byung-hun.

Lee himself does well at making the older version of the character seem like the same guy from the rest of the movie; he's got the same sense of humor, and the fondness for his former student parallels (but isn't the same as) how he firsts acts upon meeting Jung-in. He thankfully doesn't play the aged, sick Yun as a wheezing and feeble old man - something that has happened to far too many actors wearing old-age make-up. He's probably a bit long in the tooth to play a college student, but pulls off the awkwardness, naļvete, and romantic idealism well. He throttles back any urges he may have to play Suk-young as the kind of super-cool character that turned heads in A Bittersweet Life, instead making him almost relentlessly average.

Indeed, he falls into the background a bit because of how great Su-ae is. Jung-in isn't shunned when we first meet her, but she's very careful about how she acts - polite, helpful, friendly, but still trying very hard not to stand out. That Suk-young is interested in her at first vexes her, but over time we get to see her come out of her shell around him, and she's not only playful and funny, but she's rediscovering those parts of her personality and clearly enjoying it. It's not a smooth ride for her - just before Suk-young returns home, we see her heartbroken because of how the last good thing her father is remembered for is wiped away, and then...

Well, at that point director Jo-Geun-shik decides to reinforce what our protracted sequence in the past has made us forget, that the movie is basically a weeper. We knew what we were getting into from the very start, since Suk-young only co-operates with the TV show producers because they've got a good record on finding people, but we're convinced to forget that as we watch the young lovers, until he comes back with something that's even worse in some ways than the death that ends many of these movies. He could have done a somewhat better job in making it seem as permanent a separation as it is, just pointing out what kind of paranoia the dictatorship in South Korea fostered doesn't really seem like enough. The cinematography is gorgeous, making both the city and the country amazing places, albeit with their share of dangers.

Still, I imagine that this was a very popular date movie in Korea; it's got all the right ingredients and doesn't ever push hard enough to take the audience out of the mood.

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originally posted: 07/14/07 23:25:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/24/19 bibhusan rai Everythig is perfect except for i wish they would have reunited while being alive. 4 stars
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Directed by
  Jo Geun-shik

Written by
  Jo Geun-shik
  Kim Eun-hee
  Kim Eun-sook

  Byung-hun Lee

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