Love and politics mix like oil and water in “The Old Garden,” a lushly shot, oddly straight meller likely to underwhelm many fans of festival fave Im Sang-soo. Set against a rousing backdrop of the ’80s protest movements in South Korea, whose highlight is a spot-on recreation of a police massacre, this sentimentally recounted love story between a hot-blooded student activist and a lovely art teacher is too fraught with flashbacks and shifting viewpoints to catch fire beyond festival play and selected arthouse niches.
Setting aside his provocative exploration of sexual mores in “Girls’ Night Out” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife,” Im returns to the political terrain of his accomplished satire “The President’s Last Bang.” Unfortunately, his adaptation of Hwang Seok-Young’s best-selling novel about wasted lives is more of an aesthetic exercise than a genuinely moving drama.
Im tells much of the story through letters from the now-deceased Yoon-hee (Yeom Jeong-a) to her lover, who has just gotten out of prison as the story begins. This device, which recalls Max Ophuls’ “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” casts a romantic atmosphere of doomed longing over their affair and the historical events narrated in broken flashbacks.
Back in the 1980s, Hyun-woo (Ji Jin-hee) is a good-looking college student involved in radical pro-democracy politics. Though jumpy editing makes the action unclear, he turns up at an anti-government protest where the army opens fire on students and workers. Script wastes no time giving historical background, but even foreign auds will get the gist.
Escaping the clash unscathed but hunted by the police and military, Hyun-woo takes refuge in the remote mountain cabin of Yoon-hee, a sympathizer with the movement whom he meets for the first time. The attractive pair are soon swept up in a dreamy romance in this Shangri-La, until Hyun-woo ends their idyll to return to fight for political justice in Seoul. He is immediately arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison, while Yoon-hee bears their child.
A false note of rhetoric pervades the film, summed up in a line about the ’80s being “a time when you could never pursue your own happiness.” Yet the story suggests the lovers could have gone on living together had the dashing Hyun-woo not been such a naive ideologue. Most viewers will identify with Yoon-hee’s more down-to-earth perspective, from which his unilateral decision to return to Seoul is foolish and unnecessary. Still, it is hard to say what side Im is on amid the film’s shifting points of view.
While Ji Jin-hee grapples with a heroic but underwritten role, Yeom Jeong-a (“A Tale of Two Sisters”) brings a satin smooth elegance to her portrait of a courageous free spirit.
Beautifully composed widescreen lensing by cinematographer Kim Woo-hyung offers romantic panoramas of Yoon-hee’s mountain retreat in Galmwhe and an impressively realistic recreation of the period’s massive anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations.