A beautifully modulated, assured performance by Choi Min-shik (“Old Boy,” “Chihwaseon”) anchors “Springtime,” the tale of a disillusioned music teacher who leaves the big city and finds renewal at a rural junior high. A tad long at more than two hours, but, like its protag gaining inner strength from its relaxed approach, this would make a quality entry in festival sidebars, with some chance of Eurocable play down the line. For such an unflashy, character-driven film, local B.O. was solid at 700,000 admissions (north of $4 million) this fall.
The theme of returning to simpler, small-town values is still a potent one in South Korean cinema, though generally attached to stories of revisiting one’s childhood home or school. Latter is not the case here: Middle-aged, still-single Lee Hyeon-woo (Choi), a talented wind player and amateur composer whose professional and emotional life in Seoul has stalled, is only able to find a job at a no-hope school in an insignificant mining town.
Leaving behind a woman, Yeon-heui (Kim Ho-jeong), who’s equally frustrated at his refusal to commit to her, Hyeon-woo starts teaching a small wind band of unmotivated kids who are due to enter a music competition. He also gradually gets to know the pretty local pharmacist, Su-yeon (Jang Shin-yeong), who’s having troubles with her b.f. (Kim Gang-woo).
With all the ducks in place, film looks like it’s going to turn into a cozy tale of the power of music and community values — along the lines of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Les choristes” — climaxing with the crucial concert. Instead, the focus stays tight on Hyeon-woo himself and the 10 or so supporting players whose lives intersect with his own.
Chief among these is one of his charges, young Jae-il (Lee Jae-eung), whom he befriends and often shares a simple meal with, as well as financially helping the tyke’s impoverished grandmother.
Hyeon-woo’s friendship with Su-yeon also doesn’t run along expected lines: It’s left vague whether there’s any romantic leanings on Hyeon-woo’s side, and their relationship slowly blossoms into a real friendship.
Typically for the whole movie, the final music competition isn’t blown up into a heartwarming climax. Pic’s real, interior climax is in Hyeon-woo’s final realization of Yeon-heui’s part in his life, sketched in the gently moving final reels.
No South Korean actor is better at portraying shambling, somewhat ornery charm than Choi and here, far more reined in than in “Old Boy,” he offhandedly dominates the picture, often with a sly wit. Jang is fine as the young pharmacist, and Lee totally cute-free as the young kid.
Tech credits are pro, with Lee Mo-gae’s camerawork catching the cold light of a bone-freezing Korean winter.