New for me
Director I Junik's latest film must of been a bit of a gamble for him. After enduring criticism that he doesn't write female characters into his stories, he goes out and centers his latest film, Sunny, on a female character. To deal with this very new development, he actually brings back elements from his previous works: this is a period piece like The King and the Clown and his war film before it, Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield. Furthermore, it centers around consolatory musicians during the Vietnam War. Admittedly, I Junik said that he hasn't approached female characters in the past because he doesn't believe he understands them. Unfortunately, I have to say I agree with him.
The story is lead by naive country girl Suni (Suae), who later gains the name "Sunny" because it's more attractive. Apparently bound to an arranged marriage to a husband who isn't interested in her and a mother-in-law who only sees her as an ends to continued lineage, she somehow dutifully continues to visit her husband in the army. And then his hot-headedness results in his deployment to Vietnam. Having little other recourse in her strict community, she prevents her mother-in-law from chasing after her husband by opting to find him in Vietnam herself. Getting there is difficult, so she teams up with a scoundrel of a musician, Jeongman (Jeong Jinyeong), and his band who's heading to Vietnam for profiting on the need of entertainment for the military.
The major problem with Sunny is apparent almost from the very start. We don't understand her. It's not even that she's painted as a necessarily saintly female like in folk tales like Chunhyang--she's obviously in a loveless marriage. Why she takes it upon herself to chase after him in Vietnam never becomes apparent during the course of the whole film. Because this motivation never becomes accessible over the course of the film, I could never believe her character's willingness to throw herself into a rather hostile and dangerous environment. Now, the supporting character bandmates are all well drawn and they have great written chemistry together, typical of I Junik's films, but the film weighs so heavily on Sunny that, because she's inaccessible, the whole project seems to sink with her.
The lead actress, Suae, who's proven herself in previous pictures, is sort of wasted here. She performs the character more or less believably, but the character is so impenetrable that she never really seems alive. The other bandmates as well as the husband and his cohort/nemesis in the military are all better fleshed out and consequently better performed. Like many Korean films, the non-Korean actors however are a wash, with the most dismal performances going to American army personnel.
At least the film is well shot. Combat scenes are believable as are the music scenes. I do question the use of a bright yellowish/greenish color palette when the film is supposed to be somewhat serious and somber. At least the music is good, along with the imagery, and production values are solid for its limited budget.
What the film has going for it, in terms of strong supporting characters, visual direction and music is largely wiped out by the stone wall of a protagonist. By never letting us into her heart, or even into her head, we never fully believe in Sunny and consequently, the movie becomes incredulous. I think I Junik might have defeated himself in saying that he finds women mysterious and the prophecy has fulfilled itself in his latest film. It's not that he's necessarily a bad filmmaker, but he and his writer, Choe Seokhawn, really need to make their female characters fully human first, before wondering what makes a woman a woman. Perhaps then they'll be able to capture the rapport with women that they so successfully did with men in their past films. Not recommended, except as one of the few Korean films to deal with Korea's own experiences in Vietnam. 5/10.