Sunday, November 08, 2015

NYKFF ’15: Wonderful Nightmare

You would think Heaven would have the best clerical help available, but it is apparently hard to find officious bureaucrats with good hearts. Just like they did in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait, the celestial paper pushers have summoned a soul before its time. In this case, high-powered super attorney Yeon-woo still has a perfectly good body resting in a coma. If she merely takes the place of a woman whisked away one month early, she can be transferred back to her regular body and the life that goes with it. Of course, that will be plenty of time for her to forge emotional attachments in Kang Hyo-jin’s Wonderful Nightmare (trailer here), which closes the 2015 New York Korean Film Festival.

Yeon-woo grew up as an orphan when her sailor father was lost at sea and her mother died prematurely of a broken heart. She learned to rely only on herself. She now thrives as a cutthroat power lawyer, but concrete traffic barriers are just as solid for her as they are for the rest of us. Nevertheless, she was supposed to walk away from her accident—and she still will, once she has done a solid for Mr. Lee, the manager of Heaven’s processing center.

Yeon-woo’s instructions are clear. She is not to make any consequential changes to her host body’s life. Of course, the highbrow attorney chafes at their lower middle class lifestyle. She is also freaked out at the prospect of having a teenaged daughter and a son in kindergarten. At least her husband Sung-hwan is handsome, but his work as a civil service salaryman hardly impresses her. Eventually, you know exactly what starts to happen, despite Yeon-woo’s initially standoffish, nervous breakdown-like behavior. That means tough choices and sacrifices are inevitable.

Nightmare was a huge hit domestically, so you know you’re going to need a hanky. However, screenwriter Kim Je-yeong cranks up the sentimentality in rather clever ways. It is manipulative as all outdoors, but at least it calls back and closes loops in ways that enrich the narrative. We’re going to get played by Kang and Kim, but played well.

Uhm Jung-hwa is game enough in the ostensibly anti-diva diva role. In the 1990s, she was sort of like the Julia Roberts of Korea, but she is still at the top of her game. Obviously, you do not maintain that kind of clout by phoning it in. She also develops some appealingly easy-going chemistry with Song Seung-heon as her husband for the month. Rubber faced character actor Kim Sang-ho mostly keeps the shtick in check as Kim from above. However, the film’s real discovery is the charismatic Seo Shin-ae, who is perfectly cynical and sarcastic in a teen kind of way as her daughter Ha-neul.

You had better believe there are lessons to be learned in Nightmare. There is also a good deal of body-switching comedy that is more worthy of groans than laughs. Nevertheless, when the film throws down the melodramatic hammer, it somehow gets it all together and brings it home. In all truth, The Beauty Inside (screening today at NYKFF) is an even more emotionally satisfying romantic fantasy, but Kang closes strong. Recommended for fans of feel good, slightly supernatural rom-coms, Wonderful Nightmare screens this coming Wednesday (11/11) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of the 2015 NYKFF.