Late Autumn (South Korea, 2010)
“What makes this movie so ambitious is the love story. If it doesn’t work, if you don’t believe it, then the whole thing is a disaster.” Matt Damon was talking about the sci-fi romance The Adjustment Bureau (2011), but he may as well have been talking about Late Autumn, a high-profile remake of the 1960s Korean film of the same name (now lost) that’s also been remade before, twice in Korea and once in Japan. Its ambitiousness comes from the fact that it was shot in America, with its two leads, the Chinese actress Tang Wei and Korean actor Hyeon Bin, speaking mostly English, a language neither of them is all that familiar with.
The question has to be asked: why not just shoot Late Autumn in Korea with two Korean actors? It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble and likely would have prevented the kinds of problems that arise when making this kind of movie. It may not have saved the movie—the problems with this film go deeper than just bad accents—but it could have made a big difference.
Tang Wei plays Anna, a Chinese American woman convicted of killing her abusive husband in self-defense. After seven years in prison, she learns that her mother has died, and so is granted a 72-hour reprieve to attend the funeral in Seattle. While on the bus, she meets Hoon (a very lively Hyeon Bin), an escort for rich, married Korean women. Hoon needs to borrow $30 to cover his bus fare and decides to ask Anna, at first speaking Korean to her and then switching to English when she doesn’t respond. Anna loans him the money, telling him tersely that he doesn’t need to pay her back. She makes it obvious that she’s not interested in talking to anyone, but Hoon keeps at it, making small talk throughout the trip and again in Seattle, when a chance encounter brings the two together again. And so begins their tentative romance, with Hoon advancing charmingly and Anna retreating behind the wall she has erected between herself and the world.
Both actors do a fine job with the characters they’ve been given. The director and screenwriter, Kim Tae-Yong, best known in the West for the horror film Memento Mori (1999), wisely keeps the dialogue between the two leads to minimum. Tang Wei is wonderful to watch, her eyes and facial movements saying everything her halting English cannot. Hyeon Bin, sporting the kind of pompadour usually seen on Tadanobu Asano or Jo Odagiri, is disarmingly charming, with an attentiveness to women’s needs born from his profession. But here’s the mistake the movie makes: it doesn’t let Anna out from behind her wall until it’s too late. All the while, I was wondering why Hoon was so smitten with Anna. There’s nothing in his character, either spoken or shown, that would give him this drive. It’s merely a conceit of the script: two characters meet and fall in love, whether they want to or not (and whether the audience cares or not).
The Rendezvous, the 1972 Japanese remake, is an example of how the same material can be transported to another country and still be successful. In Saito Koichi’s version, the woman is older and the man younger, age forming the barrier that the two must overcome. Although the woman (played by the great Kishi Keiko) is also emotionally withdrawn, we see her gradually thaw, her facial expressions subtly revealing a woman who doesn’t want to have to hide her feelings all the time. That they’re something of two of a kind is apparent in the man’s nervous laugh; he tries to come off as cool but can’t help showing his vulnerability.
Compare this to the two leads in the modern Late Autumn. Both are emotionally distant for the bulk of the film. Anna has her wall and Hoon has his confidence. That they end up together at all is a contrivance of the script. But the film keeps insisting that they’ve fallen madly in love, going so far as to force the two leads into an overly long and intimate kiss. As the kiss dragged on, shot in close-up to force an intimacy that was never there, I almost had to look away. I became embarrassed for the two actors, dutifully engaging in a kiss that belonged in a different movie entirely.
So, why is this movie set in America, with its leads from two different Asian countries? My guess is the producers were trying to hedge their bets and get the film into as many different markets as possible. It’ll play well in Korea, China and English-speaking countries, right? Wrong. By having your leads do all their acting in phonetic English, you alienate not only the English-speaking audience but the actors from each other. How can they be expected to develop any chemistry and to really inhabit these characters, when they don’t even know what they’re saying?
Kim Tae-Yong obviously wanted to make a classic love story. The seriousness with which he treats the material—very little music, lots of close-ups—is overwhelming. Yet you wonder if he even read his own script. Given the source material, the seed for a good movie is there. It’s just unfortunate that that’s not what we ended up with.