Hee-seon Kim, as Wanee, is fabulous. I'm not familiar with her work outside Wanee and Junah but apparently this "first beauty of South Korea" hadn't received many high marks in the thespian department before this. She is a natural and simple beauty but that's not important. She brings an incredible amount of restraint and depth to the role here, and when it comes time to cry she does it just right. Jin-mo Ju, also a looker, as Junah, is very sympathetic and brings more to his role than just being a kind and supportive puppy dog.
These two very genuine performances allow for Wanee and Junah to reach some peaks of emotional sadness on the level of One Fine Spring Day—one of the best films ever made about love evaporating for no reason (or for so many reasons it's too complicated to parse), just like it does in real life. This is the kind of sadness that doesn't make you cry, it makes you mad. It makes you want to rebel against it because it seems so unfair, so not right. So with all this goodness going for it why don't I love this film? Maybe I do. Maybe I'll come around to accepting it, warts and all. One thing I love about it is that it has stayed with me and scrambled my brain for days after watching it.
The director uses a handful of jump edits in the first act of the film. This technique is often utilized to let ten seconds of screen time signify a much greater span of real time. I thought they were unnecessary and gave it an amateurish feel. The film jumps back and forth in time, from the present day to Wanee's high school days, so there is an inherent non-linearity to it. Since the film is about Wanee coming to terms with her past, and Junah discovering it, this is necessary. All of the transitions between time zones are expertly and creatively done but the substance of them often feels oblique, like the director is toying with the viewer's ability to file each of them away for later explanation. This is the kind of thing film snobs champion, saying "The film makes you think!". But good films should make you think about their content not their structural deployment.
Here come the ***SPOILERS***
It ends happily. In a way it comes as relief because ten minutes before it ends you're likely to be coiled up in disbelief at the level of sadness. But something about a happy ending makes for a less powerful film. It becomes just a movie at that point. Wanee and Junah is not just another movie, though. The roadblock to romance is Wanee's first love. A love left unconsummated and full of prickly details, one of which is that it kills her mother's husband, who is the father of said first love, which makes the guy her half-brother, not to mention also her best friend's first true love. At first, all of this thorniness seemed cheap to me, especially the way it is not made clear from the beginning. I felt deliberately mislead even though I knew from the overall wholesome tone of the film it wasn't going to go very far into dark places. It could have. And it could have chopped off the happy ending and it would have been killer. And I would have criticized the film for being unrealistic and exploiting taboos for the sake of making me unnecessarily unhappy. End ***SPOILERS***
Wanee and Junah is a pretty remarkable film. Good performances, good cinematography and score compliment the ambitious, if not always successful, directorial choices in both structure and content. I was frustrated many times along the way but not too many films can tie your guts up into a knot the way this one does. Color me impressed with that.
I'm posting this one with four stars, which is a compromise between Your Mileage May Vary and A Great Success. I've given it three, four, and five stars in the tags because I really can't decide. Wanee and Junah, like the aforementioned One Fine Spring Day, is a film that depends a lot on what you bring to it, what your own experiences are, and where you sit with regards to some of the delicate circumstances it operates in.
Starring: Hee-seon Kim, Jin-mo Ju, Seung-woo Cho, Kang-hee Choi
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