If the only valid form of film criticism is to make your own movie, then influential Korean pundit Jung Sung-il ambitiously tries to distill a career of aesthetic judgment into his sprawling debut, “Cafe Noir.” To make the big ideas more palatable, Jung swaddles complaints about his country’s politics, religion and cinema in a series of romantic misadventures loosely drawn from two famous literary works, Thomas Mann’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “White Nights.” Add in the film’s 198-minute run time and you have a noncommercial statement custom-tailored to film fests, yet too taxing for everyday auds.
Three hours is a long haul, no matter what the movie. Surely Jung must understand that, given his background as film critic and editor of Kino magazine, though he clearly favors the long-take, slow-build of such Asian auteurs as Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien (filling the movie with red balloons in tribute to the latter).
In “Cafe Noir,” his opening shot runs nearly four minutes, subverting centuries of Christian iconography as it lingers on the beatific face of a young Korean woman, moved to tears as she devours a hamburger before her fast-food altar. The arresting visual is unlike anything that follows but serves as something of a gauntlet, challenging our expectations, our consumer values and most certainly our patience.
What does follow is the mildly interesting story of melancholy music teacher Young-soo (“Thirst’s” Shin Ha-gyun), devastated by the return of his lover’s husband. The woman, Mee-yeon (Moon Jeong-hee), rejects him on Christmas Eve, sparking Young-soo’s fantasies of revenge (Young-soo buys a hammer with which to kill his rival, “Oldboy”-style) and suicide (he throws himself into Seoul’s icy Han River, site of “The Host”).
As it happens, the city — the subject of long tracking shots that serve as a cinematic equivalent to the street-wandering passages of “White Nights” — teems with other available women, including another Mee-yeon (Kim Hye-na) who works with him at school and hopeless Sun-hwa (Jung Yu-mi), who shares her own tale of heartache in another unbroken take.
The film shifts its attention from the Mee-yeons to Sun-hwa at roughly the midway point. Jung waits until this transition to supply the film’s opening title and credits (a nod to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, perhaps?), which accompany a scene of Young-soo stumbling into a bookstore and discovering the two novels his life appears to be mirroring (“essential works of world literature for the cultural education of girls and boys,” per an early onscreen label), with the “White Nights” portion inexplicably presented in black-and-white (Red-shot footage makes even relatively mundane scenes look visually meaningful).
Neither adaptation nor homage, “Cafe Noir” functions more like a daunting intellectual exercise. The pic’s deliberate pacing and running time feel like self-indulgence run amok, and yet, the semiotician-as-helmer clearly selected each shot, location or music cue to impart some added element to his overall argument, much of it lost in translation.
Ever the critic, Jung leverages the project to counter certain tendencies in contemporary Korean cinema (which he cuts down to size via sly references to “Dragon Wars,” “Happiness” and other pop hits). Unfortunately, just as many reviews seem to be written exclusively for the benefit of other critics, much of “Cafe Noir” feels frustratingly obscure, with the pic’s listless surface story far less interesting than its difficult-to-discern subtext. If Jung’s intent is to spare us the junk-food mentality of most movies, he hasn’t given us enough to bite into.