Originally published at Dramabeans on June 23, 2014Christmas in August catapulted director Heo Jinho to the forefront of the Korean New Wave in the minds of many local film critics for his understated, yet captivating, style and his unexpectedly low-key approach to the typically emotionally-charged topic of terminal illness. In fact, director Heo's work in Christmas in August was often compared to the work of Japanese master director Yasujirō Ozu, no doubt a flattering comparison for Heo, who has himself admitted to being a fan of Ozu's.
The film even gained traction with critics and audiences in Japan, leading to a Japanese remake in 2005. And for Hur's second film, Shochiku, a movie studio that has produced Ozu's films in the past, even opted to co-produce. While this follow-up, One Fine Spring Day, wasn't blessed with comparative box office success to Christmas in August, it did win over the hearts of critics with its tale of the making and breaking of a relationship.
The film opens with I Sang-u (Yu Jitae) chasing down his grandmother (Bak Seonghui), who suffers from dementia and has a compulsion to go to the train station to wait for her late husband, a conductor, to get off of work. Sang-u lives with her and his father (Bak Inhwan), with frequent visits from his aunt (Sin Sinae), and the whole family makes it known that they believe it's time for him to get married. This is a topic he avoids.
Sang-u works as a recording engineer and he is sent by his studio to help a radio show producer in Gangwon Province, Han Eunsu (I Yeong-ae), record nature sounds for her show. Despite some immediate miscommunication, Eunsu finds Sang-u attractive enough to start a relationship with him. However, the divorced Eunsu becomes uncomfortable with the naive Sang-u's increasing seriousness with their relationship and we watch as fear and reluctance break them apart.
The story is actually fairly simple and many of the scenes in One Fine Spring Day are more demonstrative than built upon conflict, so that it remains compelling is quite surprising. However, upon examination, the reason why the film works so well despite its simple plot is that the characters are actually realized at considerable depth and the conflicts they have with each other, as well as internally, are built upon this characterization.
For example, the fact that Sang-u has a supportive family and their pressuring him to marry plays into the way he relates to Eunsu, especially in his willingness to become more serious. Meanwhile, Eunsu's lack of close family or friends, as well as her status as a (probably older) divorcee informs her reluctance and hesitation with Sang-u once Sang-u gets serious. But this also affects her ephemeral playing with idea of commitment, like in a scene when she spots a couple burial mounds in the countryside and notes to Sang-woo that it would be nice to be buried together with him like that.
This is of course further helped by the performances. Yu Jitae's warm, boyish looks are perfectly fit for Sang-u's naive nice-guy and it is perhaps one of the most appropriate roles I've seen him cast in. In contrast, I Yeong-ae manages to carry layers of hurt even behind her smiles and plays the more experienced Eunsu well, the two of them together having surprisingly excellent chemistry, both in romance and in conflict.
The real star of the show, however, is Heo. With his cinematographer, Gim Hyeonggu, Heo puts together a series of immersive mise-en-scènes for Sang-u and Eunsu to inhabit. Early scenes of the pair in a bamboo forest and a temple never exude overt romanticism, but in their sheer observation of nature and thoughtful composition, convey the kind of sensory beauty under which two people might find themselves feeling romantic.
Furthermore, with Sang-u and Eunsu in the business of recording sound, it only makes sense that One Fine Spring Day feature some impressive sound design and it does. With so many moments of the two would-be, then actual lovers listening to the sounds of nature and civilization, the film makes it easy to get caught up with them as well as the little moments when they listen to each other in recording. The only detraction that I can point to in the final mix is the score. With so much beauty in the sound design, when the acoustic guitar-based score intrudes into those moments of aural observation, it simply is distracting and almost appears heavy-handed in a film that could otherwise boast no such bluntness. It's a jarring contrast.
The subtlety of the film might be demanding for audiences that need more immediate gratification, but with Heo's nuanced and naturalistic observation of romance and its dissolution, it's easy to transcend the need for typical plot points to move you along. As One Fine Spring Day demonstrates, the series of moments that linger in our memories--whether memories of love or hurt--and what drives those moments in the characters are story enough. In that sense, One Fine Spring Day, through its thoughtful play of backstory and observation, manages an atypically compelling tale.
And perhaps that's what Korean film critics were noticing when they gave One Fine Spring Day a handful of awards the following year. That's not to say that the film is for everyone: like Christmas in August, One Fine Spring Day does move slowly and is content to work within the boundaries of subtle storytelling. Attentive and patient viewers will be able to get the most from this film, but because of the subject matter, I think anyone with a history of heartache might find something in One Fine Spring Day to appreciate. Or just watch for the enchanting direction and sound design. 9/10.