The psychology doesn't make much sense, and the characters too often do illogical things only movie characters do, but there's enough drama, action and handsome production values to make "Sunny" an entertaining two hours of big-screen escapism.

The psychology doesn’t make much sense, and the characters too often do illogical things only movie characters do, but there’s enough drama, action and handsome production values to make “Sunny” an entertaining two hours of big-screen escapism. Tale of a spurned Korean wife who runs after her husband in war-torn 1971 Vietnam is sustained more by other thesps than by pretty but bland lead actress Su Ae, plus surprisingly smooth direction by Lee Joon-ik (best known for local megahit “King and the Clown”). July 24 release has already racked up a sunny 1.5 million admissions in its first two frames.

Sun-heui (Su Ae) is a traditional country girl, with a gifted singing voice, who’s trapped in an arranged marriage to Park Sang-gil (Eom Tae-woong). Under pressure to produce an heir, she regularly visits Sang-gil at the camp where he’s doing military service; only problem is that he’s really still in love with a college sweetheart.

When Sang-gil suddenly disappears to Vietnam without even telling her, Sun-heui determines to track him down. Script hardly establishes in its early scenes a convincing enough reason — apart from sheer filial duty — for her to persist in what turns into an increasingly hazardous venture, weakening the whole film’s emotional substructure.

Sun-heui finds that the only way she can get to Vietnam is as a “consolatory singer” (i.e. troop entertainer), and she ends up in a band run by sleazy con artist Jeong-man (Jeong Jin-yeong), who rechristens her Sunny. With long hair, trashy ’70s duds and a buccaneering attitude, Jeong-man livens up what looked initially like a pure melodrama, and Jeong (“Hi, Dharma!,” “King and the Clown”) confirms his smarts as one of South Korea’s most unconventional actors, especially good at comedy.

The band’s odyssey from Saigon to the battlefront includes Sunny initially blowing a gig in front of some U.S. grunts but later finding her feet entertaining Korean troops. (American military is portrayed in an unflattering light throughout, unlike the kindly Koreans.) Later reels, involving the Viet Cong and a mad dash by helicopter to find Sang-gil go way beyond the bounds of believability. But then, the whole premise was never that believable in the first place.

Compared with his uninspired helming of “King and the Clown” and his standard direction of “Radio Star,” Lee produces a slick package that keeps the story motoring, allows plenty of character-rich moments among the band’s raggedy members and pulls off several surprise moments (aided by excellent sound design) when the realities of war burst in on the main story. Especially in these sections, and in the convincing evocation of ’70s Vietnam (re-created in Thailand), the sizable $7 million budget is all up on the screen.

However, for a director who’s largely concentrated on male characters to date, Lee still doesn’t make a case for his skill in handling female ones. So good in the underrated 2004 drama “A Family,” Su Ae is here mostly decorative, with Sunny often a bystander in her own story.

Korean title (“In a Distant Place”) refers to a well-known song that is also featured in the movie. Use of “Danny Boy” as a tearjerker melody may seem cliched to Western viewers.

Sunny

South Korea

Production

A Showbox/Mediaplex release of a Tiger Pictures production. (International sales: Showbox, Seoul.) Produced by Jeong Seung-hye, Jo Cheol-hyeon. Directed by Lee Joon-ik. Screenplay, Choi Seok-hwan.

Crew

Camera (color), Na Seung-yong; editors, Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-beom; music, Bang Jun-seok, Lee Byeong-hun; art director, Gang Seung-yong; sound (Dolby SRD), Im Hyeong-geun, Choi Tae-yeong; assistant director, Jeong Yong-gi. Reviewed at Primus 3, Bucheon, South Korea, July 25, 2008. Running time: 126 MIN.

With

Su Ae, Jeong Jin-yeong, Ju Jin-mo, Eom Tae-woong, Jeong Gyeong-ho, Cheong Gyeong-ho, Shin Hyeon-tak, Park Yun-ho, Lee Ju-shil, Jo Mi-ryeong. (Korean, English dialogue)
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