After several steps back with his sophomore outing, L.A.-set “Love Talk,” writer-director Lee Yoon-ki (“This Charming Girl”) makes a qualified return to form with “Ad Lib Night.” Marbled with some of the same ambiguity as “Girl,” and also with a similarly otherworldly perf by its lead actress, “Ad Lib” looks to parlay its way round the fest circuit, despite a soft middle section that could lose some 10 minutes. However, slim pic, adapted from a Japanese short story, will need extreme critical support to go theatrical in most territories.
Without any establishing material, story plunges straight into the action, largely in closeup, as a young woman (Han Hyo-ju) is approached on a Seoul street by two men who claim to be old friends of hers. One of them, pushy Gi-yeong (Kim Yeong-min), insists she’s Myeong-eun, even though it’s been a long time since they last met.
The woman says Gi-yeong is mistaken but, despite his insistence, she doesn’t walk away. In a well-written sequence, which plays first on her sense of politeness and then on her growing curiosity, all finally agree a mistake has been made. Gi-yeong then persuades her to help him out by undertaking an extraordinary favor: to come with him to the countryside and pretend to be a dying old man’s runaway daughter, so her “father” can at least die in peace.
The woman’s agreement to do this requires a leap of faith by the audience that’s only paid back at the end of the movie. At this early stage, we know nothing about her character or background that would justify her climbing into a car with two strange, not especially charming, guys.
However, as the film rolls on, this becomes less important. Arriving in the country, she finds that the old man’s grieving relatives and neighbors, who are filled in on her agreement, are a dysfunctional bunch. As the evening wears on, they’re soon at each other’s throats, though friendly enough to the young woman, who plays her part with surprising conviction. One even notes how much she looks like Myeong-eun, though her character is different.
Though there’s some humor at the expense of the spatting/grieving family, the film doesn’t rely dramatically on the young woman’s impersonation of the dying man’s daughter. During much of the long night, she’s just an observer of events rather than a participant, which does weaken the picture’s focus, especially as it’s hard to work all the family’s exact relationships and identify with their characters and complaints about each other.
This central section needs tightening, as the dramatic turning point of the movie comes only in the final 15 minutes, as the young woman is driven back to Seoul in the early hours of the morning. All the questions about her, which have been hanging since pic’s start — even down to what her name is — are gradually answered. Kind of.
“Girl” was ultimately so successful because its focus stayed tightly on the main character throughout; “Night” is less so, as the young woman is even more of an enigma and not a shaper of events. Despite that, and the feeling that there’s not really enough here to sustain a whole feature, there’s a teasing ambiguity to the whole picture, with the idea implanted in the viewer’s mind in the early stages that the woman may actually be Myeong-eun. Ending does answer that riddle, but leaves others unsolved.
TV thesp Han is fine in the central role, and other roles are well cast. Transfer from HD to 35mm is very good, with digital origins noticeable only in the cold colors and occasional neon shots.