As such recent misfires as Kwak Jae-yong’s Cyborg She (2008), Yu Lik-wai’s Plastic City (2008) and Sngmoo Lee’s The Warrior’s Way (2010) have demonstrated, international co-production is a great idea on paper, but only occasionally successful in practise, which is why Kim Jeong-joong’s second feature Oishii Man is such a pleasant surprise. Shot in Seoul and Hokkaido, with the leading roles undertaken by Korean heartthrob Lee Min-ki and versatile Japanese actress Chizuru Ikewaki, this offbeat comedy takes full advantage of its pan-Asian connections to show how platonic relationships can transcend cultural barriers, providing that both parties have a basic grasp of the English language. Kim is making a habit of shooting snow-covered landscapes outside of his own country; his first feature HERS (2007) partially took place in Alaska with that story strand anticipating the events of Oishii Man in that it dealt with a character seeking solace by travelling to the middle of nowhere after giving up on her dreams. Aesthetic similarities aside, Oishii Man is a more upbeat experience than HERS; the ice floes of Northern Japan are as cinematically chilly as the Alaskan wilderness, but this is an altogether warmer affair which wraps up its audience in gentle humour and Hokkaido hospitality, while moving at a measured pace that allows the principal players to relax into well-written roles.
When we first encounter Jueon Seok (Lee), he is an up-and-coming pop singer best known for a catchy track entitled ‘Neanderthal Man’, but his career suddenly stalls when he develops a hearing problem that prevents him from completing recording sessions. After a check-up, Jueon Seok is informed that that he is suffering from Menieres syndrome, a condition which is causing his hearing to gradually deteriorate. Realising that he has to give up any ambitions of stadium-filling stardom, Jueon Seok pursues alternative career options and ends up teaching a singing class to tone-deaf housewives, just about financially scraping by and physically surviving on a recipe of raw egg, soy sauce and white rice. Through his class, he finds a potential girlfriend in Jay-yeong (Jung Yu-mi), an open-hearted fan of ‘Neanderthal Man’; on their first date, she drinks Jueon Seok under the table and then cleans up his apartment, but he is unable to express his fears and feelings to her. Sick of his life in Seoul, he takes some holiday time and flies out to Hokkaido, Japan, for a break. Confronted with the snow-covered landscape on arrival at the airport, Jueon Seok is unsure of how to proceed, but is fortunate to meet Megumi (Chizuru), a local lady who hustles him into staying at her hotel in the small village of Mombetsu. Over the next two days, friendship develops between the proprietress and her guest as they communicate in broken English while bonding over food and music.
Oishii Man is ultimately as slight as the above summary suggests, but it is also agreeably amusing and quietly charming. Hokkaido is beautifully photographed, yet not to the point that the snowy surroundings become overly austere, with this cinematic tour of the region taking in the ice caps, local eateries and an annual ice festival which holds a competition to see which contestant can cling on to a block of ice for the longest amount of time. However, the performances of Lee and his female co-stars are the main attraction, and the tentative steps that the characters take towards forming relationships are capably conveyed. Lee is actually a model-turned-actor and, at times, seems to be wearing the part by trying on a series of looks (self-conscious music star, struggling singing teacher, stranded tourist) rather than inhabiting the role. ‘Oishii’ means ‘delicious’ in Japanese, which is the first word that Megumi teaches Jueon Seok, but also one of the words that the South Korean youth audience probably used to describe Lee when watching his supporting turns in such early outings as Park Dae-yeong’s Humming (2008) and Kang Cheol-woo’s Romantic Island (2008). However, Lee unleashes some serious frustration when Jueon Seok is unable to hit the right note while recording a relatively simple power ballad and pulls off polite befuddlement when faced with another unusual Japanese dish at dinner time.
Realising that his leading man may be more suited to posing than emoting, Kim has sensibly supported Lee with two actresses who are more than able to take up the dramatic slack. Ikewaki has more acting experience than Lee, having become a fixture in such idiosyncratic Japanese films as Isshin Inudou’s Josee, the Tiger and the Fish (2003) and Katsuhito Ishii’s Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) while also appearing in more mainstream fare like Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s 20th Century Boys (2008), and this difference works with regards to their on-screen relationship. Megumi has a grandmother who warns her to, ‘watch out for fire, ice and men’, but she is sufficiently worldly-wise not to need such advice; Ikewaki makes Megumi’s contradictory nature (she claims to find Mombetsu ‘boring’ but refuses to relocate) both believable and relatable, showing her character’s contentment when sitting on the swing outside the hotel at the end of the day. As the potential love interest, Jung has less screen time but makes the most of her role as a headstrong romantic; Jay-yeong is the kind of girl who asks questions like, ‘Do you think love is only possible in close proximity?’ while biting the head off a fried fish, and Jung keeps her character on the right side of quirky in a seduction scene that involves some extremely strong alcohol and discussion of the drinking habits of President Park Chung-hee.
The message of Oishii Man is that we are all responsible for helping others and that in doing so we can also help ourselves in unexpected ways. When trying to make progress in the classroom, Jueon Soek instructs his class to practise singing with buckets over their heads in order to make them listen to their ‘inner-voice’, an approach which does not prove popular as most of the students walk out in favour of a karaoke session. The teacher’s boss informs him that, ‘People who come to us, they’re sick and tired of our lives, it’s our duty to help them have fun and be excited’ and this is the responsibility that Megumi accepts after realising that her hotel guest is not exactly the happiest tourist in town. Kim seems to have a similar recipe for satisfying his audience as Oishii Man mostly serves up lightweight escapism with an easily digestible side order of life philosophy. In keeping with the musical sensibilities of its central character, Oishii Man is perhaps a little too ‘pop’ when it could delve deeper; Jueon Soek’s problems are easily overcome (the bucket trick works wonders on the teacher, even if it does little for his students), while Jay-yeong and Megumi already seem to have all the answers. Still, such quibbles are largely irrelevant with regards to a film that is as enjoyably easy-going as this, meaning that Oishii Man could mark the beginning of a beautiful pan-Asian friendship.