Wednesday, February 11, 2015

C’est Si Bon: The Stuart Sutcliffe of Korean Folk Music

Just imagine if Peter, Paul and Mary started out as a quartet with a dude named Billy Bob singing baritone. That never happened and the Korean folk duo Twin Folio were never part of a trio, but a new behind-the-music drama will suppose they were for the sake of “what if?” Considering most of Twin Folio’s greatest hits were sad love songs, it only stands to reason love played a role in breaking apart their fictional precursor trio in Kim Hyun-suk’s C’est Si Bon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In the 1960s, South Korea lagged a bit behind the American Folk Revival, but they tried to make up for lost time in the trendy Mugyo-dong neighborhood. The C’est Si Bon club was like the early Village Vanguard, except it was all folk, no jazz. During the regular amateur nights, Yoon Hyeon-ju and Song Chang-shik regularly battle each other for victory, developing solid fan-bases and a pitched rivalry. Impresario Kim Choon-sik wants to combine their talents to launch his folk label, but wants an easier going third member to act as a buffer between them. His prospective producer-songwriter Lee Jang-hee just happens to cross paths with Oh Geun-tae, a naïve scholarship student from the sticks, with a perfectly complimentary baritone for the envisioned C’est Si Bon Trio.

Initially, Yoon and Song vibe Oh pretty hard, but their voices just fit together. Although they accept him professionally, they all compete for the attention of Min Ja-young, the queen of the C’est Si Bon social scene, who is struggling to make it as an actress. Surprisingly, Oh seems to have the inside track to Min’s heart, but if you think they will ride off into the sunset together, you haven’t heard a lot of folk songs or seen a lot of tragically romantic Korean box office hits.

It seems strange to make a film about the creation of Twin Folio in which the duo plays such a tangential role, while still forthrightly addressing the marijuana scandal that put their careers on ice for years. Regardless, Kim includes plenty of music for their fans, inventing new backstories for their most popular tunes. It will surely be much more meaningful to the faithful, but those not deeply steeped in the Korean folk scene will still be able to pick up on the film’s shout-outs and call-backs.

The musical numbers are organically integrated into the narrative and the candy-colored 1960s-1970s period details look great. It also should be admitted Oh’s early bashful courtship of Min is appealingly sweet. Unfortunately, an extended third act denouement set forty-some years later rather unsubtly drives the film’s points into the ground. Nevertheless, Jang Hyun-sung almost single-handedly saves the contemporary flashforward as the older, but wiser and hipper Lee.

Frankly, as the young Oh and Min, Jung Woo and Han Hyo-joo are so cute and earnestly sensitive, it is hard to believe they could let contrivances tear them asunder. Yet, such are the demands of Korean tent poles. It works for what it is, sort of like Iain Softley’s Backbeat, but with more yearning and crying. A can’t miss for Twin Folio fans and a guilty pleasure for those who secretly enjoy a shamelessly sentimental movie musical, C’est Si Bon opens this Friday (2/13) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.