The second of these unexpected late turn of the year treats now (though with a 2012 release date, finally a contender for my end of the year list), with a film I actually avoided initially as it looked far too light and fluffy upon the casual observation. As is often the way, it turns out to be an utter delight, once again making me fall back in love with the cinema of South Korea.
“Wonderful Radio” is the story of Jin-ah (Lee Min-jung) a host of a radio show, who used to be the leader of an incredibly successful K-Pop girl Band called “Purple”. Since breaking up the band however, she has fallen on hard times. Her Radio show is haemorrhaging listeners, her Manager is keen but useless (he only seems to be employed as he is her number one fan), and she can’t get her music career back on track. When she interviews the new K-Pop sensation, she realises that their hit is a song that her Producer had promised to her. Worse still, the Radio Station gives her a difficult new Producer, Jae-hyeok (Lee Jeong-jin) who has little time for her diva-esque ways. However, when she comes up with a great idea for a new segment on the show (where listeners come in, tell their story, and sing a song for their loved one), he begins to see how much she really does care about her job. Unfortunately, she is set up by an unscrupulous Manager (who wants to further the career of another ex-‘Purple’ member), and is not only accused of plagiarism, but she she provoked into a foul-mouthed rant. Jin-ah is sacked, and finds that it is even harder to resurrect her career. Jae-hyeok discovers the truth, and helps her restart her professional life, with not a little romantic undercurrent.
I really did not expect to like this film half as much as I did. Upon starting the film, we are introduced to a Jin-ah who is terribly unlikeable and seemingly unprofessional. Whilst I suppose the idea of a journey which redeems her is not terribly original a concept, the film is really well plotted to show us that initial impressions can sometimes be misleading. Not a scene is wasted, every moment is used to slowly reveal that we have just met Jin-ah at a bad time. She really does care about her Radio Show and her listeners. Her reasons for breaking up the Band were completely selfless. Slowly we see why so many supporting characters are so willing to defend her actions. In this way, we the audience are able to fall in love with the character, just as Jae-hyeok does. At the same time, he has to challenge his own preconceptions, and lowers his own uber-professional guise.
Lee Min-jung totally owns the film. To be honest I was barely aware of her before this, but she carries the film almost on her own. She really is a three-dimensional character, with whom we can detest, love, empathise and root for. This does mean that we don’t get so much affection for her male counterpart, but wisely the film actually underplays the whole romance angle, concentrating instead on the dramatic portions of the story, whilst giving us the romantic pay-off as an eventual reward.
Music plays an important role in the film, and it is smart enough to not just concentrate on the K-Pop element, showcasing a whole selection of musical styles, to give us a real sense of the various characters involved. I really loved the idea that Jin-ah actually writes her own songs, working against that preconception of manufactured music. But again, this is mere accompaniment to the storyline.
It is smart enough to release key plot elements slowly, so when the whole truth is realised, it feels earned, and not a left-field shock. The friendship between Jin-ah and one of the band members feels real, and only very carefully, with small moments and phrases do we realise that the truth behind the break-up of ‘Purple’, so when the truth is revealed, it is not a complete shock (though in this media-based world, one does wonder how it managed to stay quite so quiet).
Even the villain of the piece, the Manager of a stable of Stars only really reveals himself to be the big bad after we are misdirected to look at the other ex-band member. She is not without fault, but again, with one simple scene, almost wordless, she is also redeemed.
The best part of the film though is the new segment for the Radio Show. It doesn’t take up a huge amount of screen time, but it is brilliantly executed. The initial attempt is brutally painful and hilarious. Yet when it hits its stride, it manipulates the emotions like maybe only Korean Cinema can do. It does not feel manipulative, it feels heartfelt, and yes, I am not ashamed to admit I cried. It is key to understanding the character of Jin-ah, but also takes the story up and above the run of the mill love story, into something I think is quite exceptional.
I adored this film. Now it is not of course anything close to the real classics such as “My Sassy Girl”, but it is everything that I adore about Korean Cinema in a little 2 hour package. It is funny, it plays with your emotions, and I don’t think I have seen such a film with such smart and precise plotting of a character for a long time in this genre. It should have been a trite, by the book romance. But instead it is actually something potentially rather special. With a little bit more focus on Jae-hyeok, it could have been nigh on perfect – but that is a rare thing in any film, so for today this one is Highly Recommended.