Friday, August 29, 2008

NYKFF: Once Upon a Time

The Japanese subjugation of China, particularly Nanking, is now infamous, yet Korea’s experience during WWII goes relatively unmentioned in Western media. Granted the Imperial Japanese presence in Korea pre-dated the war and would ultimately result in a divided country, but one think there would be as much interest for Korea’s historical experience as for that of a confirmed geo-political rival and totalitarian state. While far from a serious, in-depth examination of Korea during the Second World War, Once Upon a Time (in Corea) (trailer here), screening today at the NYKFF, makes interesting use of its historical backdrop.

It is the summer of 1945 and the other shoe is about to drop for the Japanese. As of now, they still control Korea, having been there for approximately thirty-five years. Speaking Korean is prohibited and citizens have been forced to adopt Japanese names. Causing further distress, Korea’s national treasure, the spectacular “Light of the East” diamond has recently fallen into the hands of the Japanese authorities. Enter caper movie.

In need of resources to feed the war machine, Korea’s gem is to be shipped to Japan, after a gala celebration of its discovery, just the sort of soiree sure to draw the attention of a couple of enterprising thieves. One is Hae Dang-hwa, mostly known as Haruko in the film. Ostensibly a jazz singer, though her numbers sound more like contemporary Korean pop, she has drawn the unwelcome attentions of a Japanese military police colonel. Bong-gu, or Kanemura, a playboy antiquities dealer and general rogue, the other rival for her romantic affections, turns out to also be her competition for the rock. As they chase the prize, the local resistance cell based at Haruko’s night club targets the Japanese military commander for assassination, as Japan’s military outlook progressively worsens.

Evidently, these pulp-serial inspired adventures are difficult to pull off. Spielberg and Lucas were at the height of their powers when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark. More common are fair to lackluster efforts like The Shadow and The Phantom. In truth, Once is pretty entertaining, one of the more successful attempts at the genre. It keeps the caper plot moving at a good pace and successfully submerges us in its time and place. At times though, we could use some relief from the comic relief of the incompetent resistance partisans.

As Haruko, Lee Bo-young might have a nice voice, but it is not even close to jazz that she sings. However, we do hear some incidental big band music as well as a jazz rhythm section during some actions sequences. Strangely, her stated ambition is to open a jazz club in Russia, the supposed “home of jazz.” Given Stalin’s actual attitude towards jazz, it is a good thing she never makes it there.

Directed with flash by Jeong yong-gi, Once looks great and Lee Bo-young’s production numbers have a kind of eccentric charm (whatever style they might be). Despite the seriousness of its setting, Once is essentially entertaining, light-hearted fare that never delves too deeply into the dark realities of its place and time in history. It screens tonight as the NY Korean Film Festival moves to BAM.