Cute is not exactly the word for “So Cute,” a decidedly off-center, very offhand comedy about an eccentric family squatting in an apartment block due for demolition. Interesting first outing by writer-director Kim Su-hyeon boasts good performances, especially from Jeong Jae-yeong as the gangster brother, plus much quietly anarchic humor pitched somewhere between Slavic character comedies and alternative Japanese cinema. However, the ambling pic needs some tightening and re-editing to score as a cult attraction on the fest circuit.
Past-his-prime Jang Su-ro (Jang Sun-woo, director of “Lies” and “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl,” in his acting debut) lives in a deserted, half-wrecked block in Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon district with his two sons, biker nut 963 (Kim Seok-hun) and truck driver Dog Nose (Park Seon-woo). Both are the fruits of an earlier life of drink, shamanism and rampant fornication.
Dog Nose offers to get dad a girl for some companionship, and picks up a friend, sassy street babe Sun-yi (Ye Ji-weon). She moves in and immediately starts running the dysfunctional household with an easygoing mixture of domesticity and sexual pragmatism.
Meanwhile, Jang’s third son, So-and-So (Jeong), a violent hood just out of stir for knifing a guy, is ordered by his gang boss, Hun-tak (Kim Jeong-bae), to clear the family out of the block so it can be demolished by developers. When So-and-So realizes the family is his, he becomes conflicted, especially since up until this point he’s never even met his half-brothers.
All’s not quite right with the rest of the family, either. Dad has been impotent ever since Sun-yi arrived; the virginal 963 has secretly fallen in love with her; even So-and-So finds himself drawn to her. Dog Nose, who affects a disdain for Sun-yi’s charms, is constantly pursued by aggressive, overmature preteen Byeongari (Kim Heui-jeong, excellent), who constantly lambastes Sun-yi for being a tramp.
Film has a loose, episodic approach toward structure and plotting that’s initially attractive. But helmer Kim Su-hyeon’s seemingly deliberate disorganization causes problems later on, as he tries to gather all its strands and characters into a fitting finale. Pic takes on an almost surreal quality at the 90-minute mark, as Jang and Sun-yi decide to get married, and quickly starts to squander its accumulated charm.
Lack of a real center is the movie’s biggest problem. Though Jang is well cast as the rattled father, it’s a nonchalant, low-key perf that doesn’t dominate the movie as it should. Also somewhat shortchanged is Ye’s Sun-yi, though the actress — so good as the small-town dance teacher in Hong Sang-soo’s “Turning Gate” — manages to hold her own amid a largely male cast. Thesp especially shines in a delightful sequence where she and Byeongari finally bond as they drunkenly celebrate the arrival of the latter’s first period.
Instead, it’s the charismatic Jeong (“No Blood No Tears”) who de facto carries the dramatic spine of the film as the out-of-town lout torn between family and gangster code. His switches from filial son to braggadocio thug are among the most amusing moments in the pic, and Korean speakers will get a kick out of his mimicking of a regional accent.
Technically, movie is pro, with no special gloss or visual style, though Park Hye-sung’s colorful design of the family’s outre apartment deserves kudos. Version caught at Cannes market has since been slightly reworked, with more detail on 963’s character and added narration for clarification; this cut, shorter by a couple of minutes, was unspooled at Moscow’s competition and will be released locally in the fall.