To enjoy “Always,” Song II-gon’s romancer about a has-been boxer and a visually impaired woman, Korean meller fans will need to focus their attention on the film’s strong perfs and turn a blind eye to its cliches and continuity errors. Model-turned-thesp So Ji-sub (“Rough Cut”) and tube actress Han Hyo-joo give robust yet tender performances, but are ill served by the helmer’s careless style. Busan fest opener’s late October release will garner respectable if unspectacular local biz; other Asian territories may show interest, but the film is too poorly structured to travel far offshore.In a contrived meet-cute, blind beauty Jung-hwa (Han) stumbles into the parking lot booth where her grandfather used to work as a night watchman, and instead finds new employee and ex-boxer Chul-min (So). Unperturbed that her grandpa has switched jobs without telling her, Jung-hwa begins tuning in to TV soaps and sharing food with Chul-min instead. The sweet romance progresses favorably (underlined by Bang Jun-suk’s treacly score) until Jung-hwa asks her suitor about his past. Chul-min suddenly turns surly, but the viewer is treated to a flashback revealing his past as a brutal debt collector who did jail time after leaning too heavily on a client (Oh Kwang-rok). Jung-hwa has her secrets, too, but the drama of how she lost her sight is withheld until the third act. As the two grow closer, Chul-min once again becomes a contender on Seoul’s fight scene. When the reformed boxer learns Jung-hwa’s blindness is curable, he agrees to an illicit fight in order to secure the $30,000 required for her eye operation. Pic moves briefly to Thailand for Chul-min’s unlawful bout, but travels too far beyond the boundaries of coincidence-laden reality to sustain credibility. While some of the film’s problems stem from Song and No Hong-jin’s unpolished script, there are also continuity issues that suggest overall directorial carelessness. That “Always” is also peppered with fine scenes indicates Song is more attentive to poetic gestures than to the overall smoothness of his narrative’s trajectory. Thesps remain committed regardless. So is a bit young to be cast as a has-been boxer, but still delivers heft as well as beefcake, and he nails Chul-min’s pivotal moment of transformation from thug to repentant do-gooder. Like many actors portraying blindness, Han affects a glazed-eye look, but manages to imbue her cuter-than-cute character with a touching veneer. Lenser Hong Kyung-pyo (“Mother,” “The Good the Bad the Weird”) makes effective use of the Red camera, which seems to have become the Korean industry standard. Production values are good enough, though the film’s major fight scene could have done more to distinguish the clandestine Thai boxing cage from a Seoul soundstage. Sound design is rich, but the obvious tapping of Jung-hwa’s cane grates well before it can be recognized as a deliberate effort to foreshadow a similar noise in the pic’s finale.
A Showbox/Mediaplex presentation of a HB Entertainment production in association with 51K, Inchoen Film Commission. (International sales: Showbox, Seoul.) Produced by Moon Bo-mi, Lee Sung-hun. Directed by Song Il-gon. Screenplay, No Hong-jin, Song.
Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Hong Kyung-pyo; editor, Nam Na-young; music, Bang Jun-suk; production designer, Kim Hyun-ok; sound (Dolby Digital), Kim Suk-won, Park Jin-hong. Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (opener), Oct. 6, 2011. Running time: 106 MIN.
So Ji-sub, Han Hyo-joo, Kang Shin-il, Park Cheol-min, Wi Seung-bae, Oh Kwang-rok. (Korean, Mandarin dialogue)