Seen in Jeonju

Soomokjang (2012)

3rd December 2012

Soomokjang– directed by Park Gwang-choon. Starring Lee Yeong-ah (Cheong-ah), On Ju-wan (Jeong-hoon), Park Soo-jin (Ji-hyo) and Yeon Je-wook (Han-ki). Running Time: 100 minutes. Release Date: November 15, 2012 (theater)/ August 17, 2012 (TV)

posterThe last few weeks for Cheong-ah have seemed like a beautiful dream as she has been preparing for her upcoming wedding with her high school sweetheart, Jeong-hoon.  She is also a tree doctor and researcher which allows her to be outside and working with nature and plants. It is the perfect job her and her love for plants is mentioned on more than one occasion. One particular day however, all that begins to change. Cheong-ah is sent out into the field to investigate a strange blight infecting which may be killing them. Something seems to call out to her from the tree’s trunk and compels her to lay her hand on it. Doing so gives Cheong-ah a vision of a girl, clearly a ghost, in the heart of the tree. This vision unnerves her, but not overly so until that night when her sleep is haunted by terrifying dreams of the dead girl.. and several others as well. Her dreams become even more bizarre as she is apparently attacked and entrapped in her sleep by tree roots. She wakes with a start to find her mother sitting by her bedside persistently asking what she was dreaming. Her mother closes the conversation with Cheong-ah with a query that she always asks, “Did you take your medicine?”

While all this is going on, a second drama begins to unfold. A young man pretends to hang himself in a mental institution in order to undertake an escape.  It is successful after he slays a guard and a truck driver who has been stealing trees from a mountainside burial ground.  The first thing young man named Han-ki does after escaping is to arrange to ‘accidently’ bump into Cheong-ah whom he also knows for high school. He knows her, her fiance, and her best friend Ji-hyo well as they were all classmates together, however Cheong-ah does not recognize him until he sends her a package containing their old yearbook with his photo circled in red. This terrifies Cheong-ah who starts having flashes of surpressed memories including a key one where the shy Han-ki attempts to confess his love for Cheong-ah and give her a present, but is cruelly interrupted and humilated by the rest of their classmates causing Cheong-ah to run away from him. What does this unstable killer have in store for Cheong-ah? Or will the spirits in the trees get her before he does?

I watched Soomokjang last night.  I was supposed to be watching R2B: Return to Base for a magazine article I have to write, but I was procrastinating because I know that film is not very good and yet I have to give it a positive review. Oh, I knew that Soomokjang was not going to be an award-winning film either, but I have far more tolerance for a film that is not good and cost thousands to make as opposed to a film that is not good that cost millions. And anyway, Soomokjang is not terrible.. it just gets derailed a little.

The biggest problem with Soomokjang is that it forgets it started as a horror film. The film itself warns us this is going to happen through the character of the old man in the mountains and insists the story of the ghosts is more about sadness than terror… but I would have preferred terror. The scary and suspensful scenes the movie does have are done simply but well…the sudden flopping over  of a menacing figure, the quickly moving ghost in the forest–always just out of flashlight range, and the revelation of the old man himself.. not to mention the unpredictability of Han-ki. All of these were memorable and effective. However, the film detours into the realm of standard drama with a love triangle or two and attempts at tear-jerking moments.

3The made-for-TV nature of the film is evident as well, especially in the acting. Lee Yeong-ah is passable as Cheong-ah but Park Soo-jin as Ji-hyo is not particularly good. Yeon Je-wook overacts his part as the psychotic Han-ki, throwing in occasional spasm and twitches and the actress playing Cheong-ah’s mother is especially bland. Actor On Ju-wan is several classes above the other actors, but even he sometimes has problems with what the script gives him, with one scene at the end coming across as unfortunately laughable when it was clearly meant to be tear-inducing. The failure of that sceene is due entirely to the writing, not the actors .  All of the characters suffer under the script and they often seem like stereotypes that can be found in almost any K-drama.  Soomokjang’s small-screen origin is evident in another place as well. When mad Han-ki breaks the fourth wall and stares directly at the camera with a long, pregnant silence, I thought to myself, “Ah, commercial break.’  Commercials don’t come as often on Korean tv as they do in many other countries. However, they do occur between programs or at the end of an hour and this was obviously the place to insert an ad. It was evident enough to completely jolt me from the narrative.

However, despite my complaints and criticisms, I am going to say that Soomokjang is entirely watchable–and there are even a few good scenes as mentioned earlier.. especially the old man on the mountain. While the story seems like it was written by two different people and then shuffled together, it was an easy way to spend an hour and a half.  And I got through it.  I can’t say the same for R2B.. and I’m getting paid to write about that…

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