Tuesday, July 09, 2013

NYAFF ’13: The Peach Tree

It would have been a Sophie’s Choice worthy of Solomon, but a devoted father was understandably reluctant to make it. Instead, he raises his two sons, conjoined twin brothers fused at the neck, in seclusion.  When they finally encounter a young woman, both will be profoundly affected in Ku Hye-sun’s The Peach Tree (trailer here), which screens today during the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

Dong-hyun is the sullen brother who controls their shared body.  Sang-hyun is literally the superfluous one, who can only watch passively from his backward looking vantage point.  He is the one doctors wanted to “remove,” but their father could not bear to consent.  Both bear the emotionally scars of their mother’s rapid descent into madness.  Thinking it best to shelter them from an insensitive world, their father raises them in a remote farmhouse, with their mother hidden away like Rochester’s wife.

Concerned by his increasing resentment of Sang-hyun, the well-meaning father tries to realize Dong-hyun’s ambition to become a published writer by recruiting Park Seung-ah, a struggling children’s book illustrator.  Shrouded in a hoodie to appear unremarkable, Dong-hyun starts falling for Park as they work on a book transparently based on his own experiences: The Peach Tree.  Yet, even though Sang-hyun cannot see Park, he still shares his brother’s growing attachment.

Throughout Peach Tree, Ku’s approach screams to be compared to Tim Burton, in both good and bad ways.  Visually, she commands the screen, while showing an acute affinity for outcasts and underdogs.  There is a comparable attention to detail, but unfortunately there is also a somewhat similar slackness to her narrative.  It is no surprise where this film is headed, but Ku takes her time getting there.

Still, there is no getting around the fact Peach Tree looks incredible.  Cinematographer Kim Soon-yong gives it all a rich, sun-drenched look appropriate for a fairy tale.  Formerly a major Korean TV star, Ku has become an artistic polyglot, producing well received works in a variety of media, like a Korean James Franco, except more talented and less annoying.  Clearly, she is an actor’s director, coaxing some finely wrought work from her cast.  Ryu Deok-hwan nicely expresses all the complicated and conflicted turmoil roiling within Dong-hyun.  In contrast, Cho Sueng-woo is mostly just called upon to look sad as Sang-hyun, but he does so convincingly.  However, Nam Sang-mi finds unexpected depth in Park, who turns out to be more human than your typically noble Miracle-Worker.

It is hard to watch the first and last ten minutes of Peach Tree and not get choked up.  It is also difficult to miss the naked manipulation.  Ku’s film is lovely to look at and features some finely drawn performances, but it would have been nice to have a bit more life in the middle.  Recommended for those who appreciate high-end melodrama, The Peach Tree screens this afternoon (7/9) at the Walter Reade as part of this year’s NYAFF.