July 6, 2010 / 11:42 PM / 9 years ago

"Cafe Noir" a Seoul-set elegy to lost romance

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - With deep bows to the French New Wave and affectionate nods to recent Korean cinema, longtime film critic Jung Sung-il makes an exhilarating debut in the director’s chair with “Cafe Noir.”

Flawed but enthralling, the contemporary romantic drama turns a simple tale of unrequited love into a cinematic valentine to Seoul. Its 197-minute running time and mashup of visual styles might try the patience of some audiences, but the feature, which received its North American premiere at the recently concluded Los Angeles Film Festival, is an indelible reverie. Jung has made an auspicious midlife career change.

The film opens with a young woman’s comic-sincere prayer in a gleaming fast-food restaurant, setting up the story’s frictions between the manufactured and the sublime. Under the heading “The Essential Works of Western Literature for the Cultural Education of Boys and Girls,” the feature’s first half crisscrosses among central, secondary and minor characters but never succumbs to the conventions of a city-set, Altmanesque ensemble piece.

At the heart of the story is music teacher Young-soo (Shin Ha-gyun of “Thirst”), who embarks on a serpentine odyssey through Seoul after his married lover (Moon Jeong-hee) ends their relationship on Christmas Eve. With his highlighted pop-boy hair and teenworthy brooding, he’s as unlikely a Christ figure as one will find. But through Shin’s understated performance and the movie’s shifting perspectives, the protagonist grows increasingly sympathetic, his reactions more generous and selfless.

Amid the city’s rubble, neon and changing skyline, he carts around a holiday gift box from his ex’s daughter, one of his students. Such boxes show up in the hands of several characters, sometimes as emotional burden, sometimes as devastating liberation. A spirited messenger disembarks from her motorbike to deliver them in offices and cafes: kiss-off letters accompanied by neatly packaged discarded memories. It takes a while before Young-soo and the messenger meet; until then, his encounters with several women elicit impassioned confessions, none more so than that of Sun-hwa (the excellent Jung Yu-mi), who narrates her own story of love denied in a spellbinding extended monologue.

That scene anchors the film’s second half. The director bifurcates the narrative, placing the title and credits in a halfway-point bookstore scene, suggesting that the preceding hour and 40 minutes might be interpreted as prelude to the main action. Or not.

In Part 2, Jung switches between color and grainy black and white in a way that can’t help but call attention to itself but nonetheless serves the story’s playful dream state. Its themes and most of its characters established, the film feels more cohesive in the second half, whose plot draws upon Dostoevsky’s “White Nights.” (Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” informs Part 1, and both are name-checked in the bookstore scene.) As the characters approach resolution, if not consolation, there’s a greater sense of movement, physical and emotional: the bike messenger’s joyous nighttime ride through empty streets; a slow, loving dolly shot of riverfront buildings; and the coursing hope and heartbreak between Young-soo and Sun-hwa in the urban park around the restored Cheonggye Stream.

Paying homage to film classics — a red balloon has a cameo — and new-millennial Korean pictures (comic references to “Oldboy” and “The Host”), Jung’s fugue transcends the merely derivative with the force of its feeling and its sheer joy in the art of seeing (and hearing: Bach and Donizetti figure large in the soundtrack). Even if one hasn’t seen Anna Karina do the Madison in Godard’s “Bande a Part,” Sun-hwa’s impromptu dance in a late-night cafe is a thing of melancholy delight. If the fate of the protagonist doesn’t elicit the intended emotional response, and if not all of the story’s motifs and parallels intensify Jung’s ideas, he nonetheless has created a wintry fever dream of a film.

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