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Vie en rose, La (1994)
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by Jay Seaver

"Bigger than the pop thriller I'd been expecting."
4 stars

The Cold War created a lot of perceptions that, even if they weren't strictly inaccurate, were woefully incomplete. Ask the average American about South Korea as a nation, and he'll probably think of M*A*S*H, and say that it is a Western-allied democracy as opposed to Communist North Korea. True as far as it goes, but for a good chunk of its history, the Republic of Korea could be considered a free democracy mainly in relation to its northern neighbor - if you want to look thin, stand near fat people; if you want to look democratic, stand near Kim Il-Sung.

The description of the movie didn't really hint at any politics, making it looks like nothing more than a story about a petty thug hiding out in a comic book shop. On its face, this 1994 film sounds similar to the pop-culture-soaked gangster movies that Pulp Fiction brought into vogue on this side of the Pacific, but during the time when this movie was set, political dissidents often hid out in these all-night comic rental shops, paying a "midnight charge" (hotels were required to check IDs and alert the police). Native Koreans would know this; being a not-particularly-well-informed American, I needed some catching up. I didn't even suspect that the place wasn't even primarily a comic store until the owner (Choi Myung-kil) purchased comics from a supplier who mentioned not having seen her often.

With that in mind, the movie becomes much more interesting. When Dongpal (Choi Jae-sung) demands sanctuary, he's dangerous not just because he's violent and the gangsters he's on the outs with could follow him, but because calling the police would likely expose the labor leaders and blacklisted writers who spend their nights in the shop. So the shop's owner ("Madam" is seldom if ever referred to by name) keeps her mouth shut, even after he rapes her. In sharp contrast is Yujin (Lee Jee-hyung), an innocent-seeming young writer who offended the censors quite by accident. He has no money but offers to work as an assistant manager free of charge.

La Vie en Rose is perhaps a little overstuffed; this is Kim Hong-jun's first movie and, not knowing if he'd have a chance to make a second, he threw a lot of disparate elements in. Dongpal has some martial-arts scenes, there's romance, politics, et cetera. The movie probably could have been a little more focused without the gangster segments, although to be fair they supply most of the plot's forward momentum. Of course, that's making the assumption that this is or should be a movie about how these dissidents were hidden, rather than about the specific characters. It is, for the most part, the latter, although it will at times fall back on the importance of the task.

Madam is an interesting character; we learn her background relatively slowly, eventually finding out that she is more than an opportunist willing to take these dissidents' money. Ms. Choi also has my favorite scenes in the movie - a wordless bit as she, Dongpal and Yujin try to rebuild the shop after gangsters have trashed it. She's just purchased new inventory, and is dutifully marking it down in a ledger when she idly opens one up to start reading it and smiles, like she hasn't actually read a comic in a long time. I'm less impressed with Choi Jae-sung as Dongpal; he plays the character well, but I'm not sure that Yook Sang-hyo's script really laid his character arc out very well.

Even if it is a litle busy, though, Kim's movie does most of the many different things it does well. The somewhat melodramatic story is well-told, the nods to historical events don't feel gratuitous or extraneous to outsiders, and the occasional action scenes are exciting and well-choreographed. It's a shame that he has only made two films (Jungle Story being the other), spending much of his time in the last decade programming festivals and serving as the head of the Korean Film Commission. He gets jobs like that because he knows the medium, but the demands they make keep him from adding to it.

I learned a little something from La Vie en Rose, which is never a bad thing. I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to revisit it with that knowledge from the start, but I think that would only enhance the movie, as I'd be able to focus more clearly on the characters without having to learn the context.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11682&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/03/05 00:18:13
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3/03/05 Phyllis Skoglund Movie provides history gaps fillers. 4 stars
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