Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chuseok: prime time for couch potatoes

Chuseok is the time for migrating home en masse, or for film buffs and couch potatoes, the perfect time to camp out in front of the screen. A couple of date movies are opening the fall cinema lineup while TV networks are offering a colorful array of programs for the big holiday. Travelers can even tune into fun programs en route through IPTV, to make the long road trip less grueling. 

Sugary romances on big screen 

The cinema lineup this year was mostly marked by hardboiled action flicks and ruthless, skin-crawling thrillers. While Won Bin’s bloody drama ``The Man From Nowhere’’ continues to top the box office with more than 5.1 million viewers as of Sept. 5, a couple of romantic dramas will open Thursday for the mellow fall season.

Koreans have a soft spot for tragic melodrama, and even romantic comedies often cannot escape the traps of tragicomedies. On the post-``My Sassy Girl’’ Korean cinema scene the romantic comedy genre has repeatedly suffered from the problem of trying to substantiate silly slapstick with a dose of heartbreaking drama, ending up with something that dabbles in comedy and tragedy in a messy, bipolar fashion.

Kim Hyun-seok has contributed relatively solid stories about matters of the heart such as ``When Romance Meets Destiny,’’ and brings a breath of fresh air to the local batch of romantic comedies with his latest offering, ``Cyrano Agency’’ (Lotte Entertainment). As much as it realizes an award-winning script the director penned 15 years ago, the film is seamlessly crafted and brims with hearty laughs and drama.

Before delving into the storyline, the film’s title needs a little explanation. Some may be familiar with French playwright Edmond Rostand’s ``Cyrano de Bergerac,’’ of which the silver screen adaptation starring Gerard Depardieu is well known. Cyrano is a romantic poet-army officer, who, embarrassed by his large nose, cannot confess his love for the beautiful Roxanne. When he learns that one of his cadets, the handsome Christian, is also wooing Roxanne, he ends up being the ghost writer for the younger man’s love letters.

The film’s namesake Cyrano Agency offers a similar cupid service for those lost in love in modern-day Seoul. The agency is actually comprised of members of a theater troupe, which, out of financial desperation, found a lucrative way to reap profits from the romantically hopeless.

And so, equipped with fine actors, director, costume designer and scriptwriter, as well as an array of C.I.A-worthy gadgets, the group conspires to line up the constellation and stage the picture-perfect scenario to entice an unsuspecting target.

Eom Tae-woong stars as Byeong-hun, the mastermind of the clandestine business. His latest client is Sang-yong (``High Kick Through the Roof’’ star Choi Daniel making his big screen debut), a rich and handsome, highly eligible bachelor who is rather incompetent when it comes to love. Byeong-hun, however, is surprised to learn that Sang-yong’s object of affection is none other than his ex-girlfriend Heui-jong (high-in-demand actress Lee Min-jeong), a rather mysterious beauty with a knack for riding Vespas. It becomes rather difficult for Byeon-hun to maintain his cool business facade as he is forced to face old skeletons in his closet, while his fellow Cyrano agent Min-yeong (Park Shin-hye assumes a more grown up role) begins to suspect his past may hinder the business’ 99.9-percent success rate.

Song Sae-byeok and Ryu Hyeon-kyeong, who co-starred in ``The Servant,’’ serve dashes of fine humor.

Another romantic drama on offer for Chuseok is ``Grand Prix’’ (Sidus FNH). Yang Yun-ho, who directed the blockbuster TV series ``Iris,’’ teams up with its leading lady Kim Tae-hee for action on horseback.

Finally we have a heroine propelling the action sequences onscreen, and Kim is still really pretty, even when she’s coated in sweat and horse dung while wearing white spandex that’s, well, far from sexy.

Unfortunately that is all that must be said about the so-called sports drama. This doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t capture the charms, albeit superficial, of horseback riding, but it stops short of skimming the surface of a potentially rich drama and meaningful character development. Instead, it reverts to the cliched formulas of conventional local melodramas, which are never complete without complicated romantic histories involving parents that suggest a zero degree of separation among Koreans.

Kim plays the role of Jun-heui, an ambitious young woman set to make waves on the equestrian scene. One day she loses her beloved horse in an accident, and decides to quit the sport. She takes off on a trip for Jeju Island, where she meets U-seok (Yang Dong-keun), an equestrian champion experiencing a similar slump.

It’s a classic girl-meets-boy _ or rather beauty-meets-the-beast _ tale in which the girl is transformed as both an individual and athlete in order to take that extra leap of faith. Kim, who is considered one of the most beautiful women in Korea, is strategically paired with Yang, the country’s favorite oddball persona who has returned from a two-year military hiatus. 

The odd coupling works somewhat in the beginning, with Yang, whose mere presence onscreen is enough to inspire laughter. The rest of the romance is served on horseback rides amid the pastoral, golden sunset-hued scenery of Jeju and larger-than-life proposals of love involving departing airplanes. But we’ve seen it all in TV dramas, and there seems to be little merit to watching it on the big screen unless you’re looking for a lighthearted date movie. 

Networks battling on small screen

Major television networks KBS, MBC, SBS, EBS and the English channel Arirang TV are gearing up for one of the biggest holidays in Korea, albeit amid lingering doubts whether they are properly prepared for the annual occasion. Some have, while others simply repackaged their shows into a bundle of Chuseok specials. 

While cable channels steal the spotlight with smart and original programs, it takes more these days to captivate viewers and hopefully, networks will learn some lessons after the holiday season is over. 

KBS is aiming to schedule programs fit for the whole family, from middle-aged mothers, seniors, students and children, a clever distinction from other networks. The documentary ``Mother and Daughter’’ (Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m.) will reevaluate the true meaning of maternal love as a mother and daughter journey to Wando, South Jeolla Province, while numerous regional documentaries aim to showcase the essence of Korean tradition and culture. Through shows such as ``Global Family’’ (Sept. 22, 6 p.m.), KBS is also looking to introduce the friendlier side of such families and also help them more easily fit into local society, especially during the holiday season. 

MBC is basically bringing back their most popular shows wrapped in a Chuseok package. ``Just Married’’ (Sept. 21, 4:40 p.m.), Saturday Night (Sept. 22, 4:40 p.m.) and ``Infinity Challenge’’ (Sept. 23, 4:40 p.m.) will meet viewers in a special shortened version, while new programs only make up a small part of the overall holiday scheduling. ``Actress’ Butler’’ (Sept. 21, 6:10 p.m.) is hoping to captivate young female viewers with its young and pretty-faced cast, while ``Idol Star Trot Competition’’ (Sept. 22, 6:10 p.m.) and ``2010 Star Dance Contest’’ (Sept. 23, 6:10 p.m.) will highlight talented young artists competing for the final crown of trot and dance. 

Fellow network SBS will be a festival of entertainment shows. ``Story Show’’ (Sept. 20, 11:10 p.m.) will bring back actor Lee Deok-hwa as a host for the first time in 20 years, while ``Star Real Match’’ (Sept. 21, 6:15 p.m.) will show never-before-scenes from dramas, music videos and movies hosted by top comedians Shin Dong-yeop and Lee Su-geun. ``Fantastic Star Couples’’ ( Sept. 22, 6:15 p.m.) will match up some of the most popular idol stars together and have them compete in various games, quiz shows and contests and also have some of the stars show off their singing and dancing skills. 

As an education channel, EBS is planning to offer some of its best documentaries, including ``Koreanosaurus’’ (Sept.21, 11:10 p.m.) and ``Mankind of the Korean Peninsula’’ (Sept. 23, 11:10 p.m.) perfect to please both the younger and older crowd. 

``Koreanosaurus’’ features the dinosaurs that roamed the peninsula 80 million years ago. Filmed in New Zealand, the program offers the heartwarming story of a Tarbosaurus, from birth to old age. The documentary was also screened in 3D last year, and although the show will not be able to boast its 3D imagery on the small screen, viewers will get to learn and enjoy the life and challenges Korean dinosaurs went through. 

Viewers can also get a glimpse of the first inhabitants of the Korean peninsula through the documentary ``Mankind of the Korean Peninsula.’’ The program received rave reviews after its first airing last June, with convincing computer graphics and an interesting storyline where the first species of man, also known as homo erectus, journeyed around Korea hunting mammoths, making tools and struggling to survive. 

Along with high quality documentaries, the broadcaster will also present full length animation films including ``Mulan’’ (Sept. 21, 10:40 a.m.) and ``The Incredibles’’ (Sept. 22, 10:40 a.m.), plus a special program of some of the world’s best artists performing in Petra, Jordan, to celebrate the birthday of the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti (Sept. 20, 11:10 p.m.)

English network Arirang TV is planning a special project that features five film directors ― Bae Chang-ho, Yun Tae-yong, Jeon Gye-su, Mun Seong-ock and Kim Seong-ho ― working in five difference cities across the country: Seoul, Chuncheon, Incheon, Busan and Jeju. 

From Sept. 20 to 24, the English network will offer each of the works made by the directors. 

The five films were shown at two theatres, Sponge House and Arthouse Momo last April and May, while the Chuncheon film was screened at the Pusan (Busan) International Film Festival last year and the Busan and Jeju films at the Jeonju International Film Festival this year. 

The topics range from mystery, travel to documentary and trendy city life and the network is expected to blow a breath of fresh air in terms of film to viewers all around the world. 

One film will air each night from Sept. 20 to 24 at 11 p.m.

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