The good news is that Hur Jin-ho, South Korea’s master of meller minutiae (“Christmas in August”), has bounced back with one of his finest pictures, after the soupy “April Snow” and flawed “Happiness.” The bad news is that, at least in Anglophone territories, “A Good Rain Knows” is virtually DOA, due to the stiff acting in English of the two leads in this Korean-Chinese co-production. Subtitled in non-Anglo markets, this could still have some arthouse chances, though locally it failed to make much of a B.O. mark on its October release.
The film began as the present-day episode in “Chengdu, I Love You,” a three-part portmanteau movie inspired by last year’s earthquake in Sichuan province, China. Along the way, Hur decided he needed a canvas larger than 30 minutes and went his own way with a standalone feature.
The dismembered version of “Chengdu” preemed at this year’s Venice fest with only Cui Jian’s and Fruit Chan’s segs. (Hur did a half-hour demo cut of his seg, to prove his point to producers, but this was never shown to outsiders.) In China, “Rain” will be marketed as part two of the “Chengdu” stories.
It’s spring in the Sichuan capital, and Park Dong-ha (Jeong Woo-seong) arrives on a brief business trip involving the job of rebuilding after the 2008 earthquake. While there, he bumps into Mei (Gao Yuanyuan), an English-speaking tourist guide with whom he once had a relationship when both were studying in the U.S. Thrown together for a short, intense period, they reinvestigate their feelings for each other.
With almost zero plot, the film is built entirely on emotional texture. Mei playfully claims they never actually dated at the time; Park claims they did. Meanwhile, she has to come to a painful decision when he leaves for the airport the next day — which leads to her revealing something she’s kept secret during their friendly flirtation.
The clumsy English title refers to a text by Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, about how spring rain “knows” when to fall and bring nature back to life. Hur seeps the movie in imagery — succulently lensed in crisp colors by Kim Byeong-seo — that could have been purely touristy wrapping but here supports the story’s theme of metaphysical renewal: walks in bamboo-forested Du Fu Park, locals dancing at night, street life in the Sichuan capital. And at the center is the ever-smiling face of Mei, whose bright exterior conceals an emotional vacuum.
Given that the pair can communicate only in English, Hur wisely keeps dialogue between the two to a minimum, but their exchanges (and especially Gao’s English) are so arch that the delicate atmosphere fractures whenever they open their mouths. When acting in their own languages, the thesps are fine.
Culturally, the pic is fascinating. Though wholly set in China, it has a totally Korean feel in look and rhythm. Even Gao (“City of Life and Death,” “Shanghai Dreams”), who’s never looked more beautiful, has been given the cute look of a South Korean actress. And between the jokes (for Korean auds) about Chinese food and driving, at least one drinking sequence — between Dong-ha and his Korean liaison (Kim Sang-ho) — might just as well have been set in a Seoul bar.
Handsome, besuited Jeong, the “Good” in “The Good the Bad the Weird,” shows the problems of melding more formal Korean with looser Chinese acting styles, and often looks stiff opposite the enchanting Gao. Kim provides some boisterous character color in his several scenes.
Technical package is immaculate on all levels, with Lee Jae-jin’s fretted score adding further delicate texture. Original title means “Season of Good Rain.”