New for me
Director Yoo Hyunmok has been pretty hit and miss with me, directing some films that I really like (Obaltan, Rainy Season) and others that I found difficult to appreciate (Forever with You, The Guests of the Last Train). But seeing as I've liked more of his films than I've disliked, I decided to try another one of his films, Once Upon a Time, released as part of the Korean Cinema Masterpiece Collection series. While I was worried since it didn't have subtitles, my Korean was sufficient for watching the movie, aside from pausing the film about three times to look up unfamiliar words. It turns out that the greater difficulty for enjoying the film was its meandering story and slapdash direction, making me question just how this film was considered a masterpiece.
Set after the unification of the Three Kingdoms, the film opens with a description of some of the lawlessness due to the threat of the Tang Dynasty, which was involved in the violent unification. During this time, a messianic prophecy arose in the countryside of an infant warrior that would be born that could overthrow the conquering Tang, heralded by a flying horse. Into this situation we meet a peasant, Ah Sadal (Baek Ilseob), who we first discover stealing a Buddha statue from temple and stealing food from an old man dying of hunger. We then meet his wife, Sea Ohnyeo (Jung Hee), and the happily married pair soon conceive and bear a child. However, reports of a flying horse abound and the Tang start a campaign to find the infant warrior, with potential consequences for the new parents in addition to the rest of their village.
The problem is that the story really does not do well to build up any suspense around the couple's child and while the consequences of the Tang's local presence is felt, the threat is simply as intangible as the never-seen flying horse. Furthermore, the male protagonist's introductory behavior does little to connect with the rest of the story and work against his later character. And then, a side story that's introduced halfway into the film with a grieving old woman seeking to reclaim her deceased son's head also really fails to add to the story. So, when the events reach a heightened peak in the finale, the film simply falls flat.
Part of the problem with the film is that Yoo's direction is very uneven. While he does make some interesting visual decisions, with rack focusing and with some of his choices for long shots, his camera team suffers from some rather shaky camerawork and his shots frustratingly crammed into the 4:3 frame, seeming like they're bleeding over the edge and should have been at least shot 1.85:1 (and if it was, then I'll have to blame either the surviving print or a terrible transfer job by SM Screen). The color photography is occasionally a bit blurry, the colors aren't consistent and the existing print isn't in great shape, so the film simply doesn't look that good. Furthermore, the audio track suffers from some terrible dubbing, leaving little pleasant for the eyes or the ears in this film. Also, for a late 70's film, the acting seems to match the style from a previous generation, occasionally just seeming silly, especially in color.
I was bored by Once Upon a Time. The story isn't compellingly written or structured, the directing not especially interesting and the film suffers from either a terrible surviving print or just weak cinematography and the audio isn't really any better. Furthermore, the color picture makes the acting seem rather dated at times. While Yoo Hyunmok shouldn't be written off, simply because he's made a number of better, sometimes excellent, films, Once Upon a Time is simply not one of them. Still, even though its story isn't tight, at least it doesn't suffer from unfathomable degrees of plot holes, so it's not irritatingly bad, just simply boring. If you're going to watch a film from this legendary Korean director, I'd recommend starting somewhere besides this alleged masterpiece. 5/10.
- Available at YesAsia