Friday, June 27, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Top Star

It is the bromantic version of A Star is Born. Kim Tae-sik was once Jang Won-joon’s manager—the term manager in this context meaning the gopher assigned to Jang by his management agency. Kim harbors his own dreams of stardom that Jang will help fulfill in exchange for help cleaning up yet another scandal. There will be drama when the overnight success story threatens to eclipse his former boss in actor-turned director Park Joong-hoon’s Top Star (trailer here), which during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

In exchange for taking the fall for Jang’s non-fatal hit-and-run, Kim lands a part on the star’s latest television crime drama. Despite his questionable chops, Kim catches on with viewers. Soon he is nearly as big a star as Jang, but many of their colleagues still refuse to accept the tacky bounder. Nevertheless, Jang’s agent-lover Mi-na recognizes his commercial potential. He quickly falls for her, but she never returns his interest with enough enthusiasm for the trio to be considered a love triangle.

For about ten seconds, when Kim is big enough to be considered a social equal but not big enough to constitute a threat, the two stars become friends. Then it all falls about. The voluminous skeletons lurking in their closets do not help matters either.

There is indeed a rise and fall dramatic arc to Top Star, but it not nearly as predictable as it probably sounds. Frankly, Mi-na is considerably smarter and Kim is significantly more sociopathic than one would expect, while Jang is just too slippery to ever get an easy handle on. Still, it is safe to say the entertainment business is a wee bit corrupting, as Park (the recipient of NYAFF’s Celebrity Award) should know.

There are some knowing winks throughout the film, such as veteran thesp Ahn Sung-ki playing a fictionalized version of himself and an art-house director, who brings to mind Hong Sang-soo. Without question though, the guts of Top Star are devoted to a gleefully reckless morality tale.

As Kim, Uhm Tae-woong totally nails the everyman gone bad. He is creepy, yet we can still see the shy, insecure dreamer in there, somewhere. So E-hyun and her withering stare make Mi-na refreshingly strong and sexy. Similarly, Kim Min-jun’s portrait of erratic, less-than-self-aware privilege keeps the audience rather off balance.

Yes, it really is like what Chris Rock says: “here today, gone today.” It might sound like a dark downer, but the sure-footed Park maintains a brisk trot-like pace, while bringing out some surprisingly understated work from the fine ensemble. Solidly entertaining (but only slightly voyeuristic), Top Star is recommended for fans of upscale melodrama and those who closely follow the Korean film scene. It screens tomorrow (6/28) and Monday (6/30) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.