The South Korean city of Busan may be the throughline, but its vibrant history, culture and personality are never examined in “Camellia,” a lackluster omnibus of three unconnected stories (spy spoof, romance, sci-fi actioner), all set in the home city of Asia’s most important film festival. World preemed as the closing-night attraction of the Pusan fest’s 15th edition, the pic likely will secure some sort of theatrical release locally and in the homelands of its Thai and Japanese co-helmers. Otherwise this looks like strictly fest, specialized broadcast and minor ancillary fare.
Pic is presented by the city of Busan (the official name of Pusan) and features a raft of corporate entities in the production credits. However, the segs by local helmer Jang Joon-hwan (“Save the Green Planet”), Thai stylist Wisit Sasanatieng (“Citizen Dog”) and Japanese journeyman Isao Yukisada (“Parade”) could have been shot anywhere. Result may leave city fathers feeling somewhat deflated.
Opening in 1979 in the wake of President Park Chung-hee’s assassination, before time-traveling to 2010, Sasanatieng’s “Iron Pussy: A Kimchi Affair” offers Michael Shaowanasai another chance to strut his kitschy stuff as the transvestite secret agent he created and played in the 2003 cult item “The Adventure of Iron Pussy.” Tale of Pussy falling in love with her target, hunky Korean double agent Ji-hong (Kim Min-jun), is dressed and designed to the nines, but struggles to maintain the consistently funny “Austin Powers”-like spy spoof vibe it aims for.
Best of the bunch, though hardly a triumph, is Yukisada’s “Kamome,” about Korean cameraman Yong-su (Sul Kyung-gu) spending an evening with Kamome (Yuriko Yoshitaka), a mysterious Japanese woman he spotted through the lens earlier that day while shooting a cheesy sci-fi pic at a Busan lighthouse. Though viewers familiar with Asian mystery-romancers may spot the twist long before it arrives, Yoshitaka and Sul are appealing.
Pic’s final furlong, Jang’s “Love-for-Sale,” is an unpleasant actioner set in a future Busan where memories of love and romance are extracted from one person and trafficked by multi-ethnic crime gangs to customers craving a tincture of mental tenderness in their lives. The “Total Recall”-esque premise isn’t bad, but the pretentious agonizing of young hero Jay (Gang Dong-won) and the gratuitous gunplay and gore dogging his search for true love Bora (Song Hye-kyo) are likely to repel many viewers.
As shown by such successful city-located omnibuses as “Sawasdee Bangkok” (2009) and oldie “Paris vu par” (1965), such enterprises do not require a unifying theme and need not be love letters to the destination, just engaging stories. Touted as being about love in its many guises, “Camellia” would have been better served by exploring that universal theme in a much closer relationship with its host city and people.
Technical presentation is fine across all segments. For the record, Camellia is both the official city flower and city tree of Busan.