Friday, February 05, 2016

A Melody to Remember: the True Story of the War Orphans’ Choir

As the Korean War rages, children really are amongst the hardest hit. Orphans like Dong-goo and Soon-yi are forced to live a Dickensian existence, begging and stealing on the streets of Busan for the Fagin-like “Hook,” (so known, because he has one). However, they might find hope and belonging in a children’s choir organized by South Korean Second Lieutenant Han Sang-yeol. Yet, the war and the exploitative Hook remain as dangerous as ever in Lee Han’s A Melody to Remember (trailer here), which opens today in Queens, New York.

Before the war, Lt. Han was a music student who doted on his little sister. When the Communists occupied their home, they showed the relatively well-to-do children what class warfare really means. Han barely survived, but his sister sadly died. In a year or so, Han matures into a steely junior officer, but his sister’s death continues to haunt him.

Given his education and the recommendation of an MP who once served in his platoon, Han is appointed director of the orphanage on the Busan military base. It is the passion project of ardent South Korean social worker Park Joo-mi. Initially, the battle-hardened Han dismisses her as a dilettante, but they warm to each other as he becomes emotionally involved with the kids. The circumstances of Dong-goo and Soon-yi particularly resonate with him. The brother and sister were orphaned after their father was killed in turn by another grieving father, whose late son he ratted out to the North Koreans. Han would like to break the cycle of violence they are mired in, but technically they are only “on loan” to the choir from the super-connected Hook.

As a “based on a true story” Korean historical drama, you know Melody will be really trying to open up the tear ducts down the stretch. The combination of music, cute kids, and wartime tragedy is certainly potent. Considering its elegiac nostalgia, it is absolutely bizarre to find the film tangentially involved in a government scandal. Allegedly, the chief Korean financial regulatory agency (FSC) was strong-arming banks and insurance companies to buy bulk quantities of tickets, because lead actor (and K-pop star) Siwan serves as their media spokesman. If true, this has to be one of the most ill-conceived cases of government malfeasance ever.

It is actually rather a shame, because Siwan is surprisingly good as Lt. Han, but he might not get the credit he deserves in light of the FSC’s meddling, at least in Korea. Siwan also shows a strong affinity for his young co-stars and develops some decent chemistry with Ko Ah-sung’s Park. Lee Hee-joon makes the most of Hook’s ambiguities (he is not quite the jerk-heel villain we first expect), but it is little Lee Re who truly rips out the viewer’s heart and stomps on it, as poor grief and guilt-stricken Soon-yi.

Yes, Melody is nakedly manipulative, but it succeeds in wrenching hearts and jerking tears. If you want to see a quality melodrama, this is it. Recommended for those who like their films sad and sweeping, A Melody to Remember opens today (2/5) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Bayside, Queens.