Around the same time that South Korea emerged as a global economic force in the early 1990s, as it went about the process of shaking off the gloom from decades of authoritarian oppression, the film industry began to see a lot of changes. Large corporations began to fund some projects and film production rapidly modernized and the quality and budgets of films rose. Another aspect of the industry that began to take shape was the star system. Given the low market share of Korean films at that point, there weren’t many household names in the local film industry since the larger public would not have been aware of the films, much less the stars. As the 1990s progressed however, a few names became known to local film viewers. Park Joon-hoon and Han Suk-kyu were some of the first major Korean stars. To this day they are still popular draws at the box office, but then again, the rebirth of the industry didn’t happen that long ago.
In the late 1990s, when the domestic film market exploded, the star system blew up along with it. Very quickly, talent and management agencies began to hoard and commodify promising talent, employing strategies pioneered by the Hollywood star system and its domineering power brokers in the talent management sector. Soon the hallyu phenomenon added to this escalation of the importance of above the line talent and it was at this point that things began to spiral out of control. Budgets for Korean films were quite low, but agents had driven up the prices of top talent so production costs for the industry began to soar. Filmmakers were not happy with the direction that the industry was taking but the grip that these agencies held over the entertainment industry proved very strong.
In the middle of the last decade, around the peak of the Korean film industry’s dominance of the box office, there began to be a change in star power. Up until then, recognizable actors had proven big draws for audiences, but their appeal was starting to diminish. As the industry saw a dramatic fall in 2007, there was a shift in how projects were designed. Budgets were too high and had to be slashed, and since top actors weren’t backing up their hefty fees with solid return on investment there weren’t deemed as essential as once was the case.
At the present time even more consternation has been expressed over the bankability of big stars. Last year, there were a number of big flops. Some, like Sector 7 and My Way, were huge blockbusters that generated little interest, but there were a number of mid-level productions, more modest in their ambition, which were mainly relying on the recognizability of their main stars. One of these was Hindsight, starring Song Kang-ho, another was Countdown, which featured the promising pairing of Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeon Do-yeon.
Jeong Jae-yeong is the king of deadpan, I dare you to watch Going By the Book (2007), in which he expresses not a single emotion, without falling off your seat laughing. Over the years, he has amassed an impressive array of credits, which have included many recalcitrant gangsters and stoic antiheroes. In time he has developed into one of Korea’s most dependable leading men and of late has moved audiences to laughter and tears with award-winning roles in Castaway on the Moon (2009) and Moss (2010). Jeon Do-yeon may very well be the most versatile actress in Korea. Starting off in TV, she got her start in movies with the successful romance films The Contact (1997) and A Promise (1998) before moving onto different roles such as a gangster’s girlfriend in Ryoo Seung-wan’s No Blood No Tears (2002) and a diffident mother in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) for which she won Best Actress at Cannes.
In Countdown, Jeong plays Gun-ho, an efficient and stoic debt collector who discovers that he has liver cancer. Five years ago his son died and his organs were donated to a number of people whom Gun-ho now approaches in the hopes of getting a liver transplant. One of these beneficiaries is Ha-yeon, a con artist who is currently in jail. She is about to be released and agrees to the operation on the condition that he finds someone for her, the man responsible for her incarceration.
The film boasts a terrific opening but it doesn’t take long for the melodrama signals to turn on. The death of Jeong’s character’s son, who was afflicted with Down Syndrome, weighs heavily on him. So much so that the memory of the loss has been suppressed by some sort of ‘han’-induced amnesia. It should also be mentioned that his parents are disabled. All this comes within the first 10 minutes.
Sadly, Jeong’s deadpan demeanor in Countdown comes off as glum and a little sleepy while Jeon admirably throws herself into a role that is underwritten and scarcely worthy of her talent. It’s rather unfortunate that this is the case, especially since the film starts off so well. The problem with the film is that despite all its promise, it is critically lacking in originality. The set pieces are for the most part banal or rehashed car chases and standoffs. The photography is competent, but the editing sometimes leaves much to be desired. The film is not as witty as it attempts to be and as a result it is far too dry and glum to ever be funny. The local overcast weather is a also detriment, which by all rights should be colorful and exuberant. They should have played with lighting, locations and wardrobe more to counteract this. It’s a sad state of affairs when the most interesting location is a Lotte department store.
Another issue is that the weight of inevitability looms over the narrative as we are just waiting for the backstory, the seeds of which have already been planted in the opening minutes, to kick in and hijack the narrative. This kick is a long time coming and though it is predictably melancholy and cloying, thankfully it works rather well, due in large part to Jeong who is afforded the opportunity to add more depth to his character and performance in these final stages.
At the end of the day, Countdown is a mediocre film with a humdrum narrative which happens to feature two big stars. It’s like a song that thinks it’s cool and savvy, replete with self-assured lo-fi beats and interspersed instrumental bursts, but is really just elevator music. I am a big fan of both Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeon Do-yeon, but now I will need to count down until they both return in better films.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.