Handsomely mounted but deliberately paced and somewhat old-fashioned, South Korean vet Im Kwon-taek’s 100th helming effort, “Beyond the Years,” reps a return to the folk music traditions that have frequently informed his work. Adapted from the same material that inspired his 1993 drama “Sopyonje,” and telling essentially the same story, picture portrays the tortured lives of brother-and-sister musicians trained to perform the epic Korean poems known as pansori. Refined tone will likely attract fest programmers, though offshore commercial prospects look downbeat. On home turf, the April 12 release crashed and burned, with a mere 66,000 admissions in its first week.
Yarn begins in the present-day as fiftysomething drummer Dong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeon) arrives in Seonhak village. Compared with his childhood, when the village boasted a small but lively population and a magnificent river surrounding a spectacular mountain, Seonhak is now destitute, the waterway dammed.
Taking a room at the local inn, Dong-ho encounters Yong-taek (Yu Seung-ryong), a surly survivor from his past, and joins him for a drink. Pic is mostly dramatizations of their alcohol-fueled conversation about events since they first met years earlier.
As revealed in a flashback to 1956, drum protege Dong-ho (Yun Je-weon), accompanied by his singing sister, Song-hwa (Hwang Shi-on), and their master-musician father, Yu-bong (Im Jin-taek), first visited Seonhak during the kids’ childhood. At that time, smitten with Song-hwa, Yong-taek offers the girl some taffy. Possessive of his sister, Dong-ho begins a scuffle that brings disgrace on himself, his sister and their father.
Years later, tired of the endemic poverty of a roaming minstrel’s life, and both jealous and disgusted by his father’s unwholesome attentions to Song-hwa (Oh Jeong-hae), Dong-ho lands a gig with a theatrical troupe and, though still pre-occupied with his sister, begins an affair with the troupe owner’s lover, Dan-shim (Oh Seung-eun).
When Dan-shim becomes pregnant, Dong-ho’s obsession with his sister is rekindled. He abandons his lover to search for Song-hwa throughout South Korea.
Through a variety of sources, Dong-ho fills in the blanks of Song-hwa’s life, especially how, in his absence, she had been blinded by her father, who gave her a dangerous herb during an illness. However, Song-hwa’s vocal prowess was heightened by the affliction, fueling suspicions that Yu-bong’s error was deliberate.
While the lives of the two siblings occasionally intersect, Dong-ho largely learns of Song-hwa’s joys and miseries at a remove. Unable to reunite with his sister or find meaning in his own existence, Dong-ho’s life becomes a series of restless travels that duplicate the itinerant routine he once hoped to escape.
Main thesp Jo brings a simmering intensity to Dong-ho, while pansori singer-cum-actress Oh Jeong-hae, reprising the same role she played in “Sopyonje,” manages to imbue the symbolic ideal of Song-hwa with a tangible personality. Oh Seung-eun is convincing as Dan-shim, but her few singing scenes — revoiced — are less successful.
Im’s helming is classy but conservative. While direction is precise, the helmer’s reserved style lacks the passion that could have widened the movie’s appeal, and the spirit that made the original “Sopyonje” so involving. In a frustrating contrast to the energy he displayed in “Chunhyang,” Im’s interest in the traditional songs here seems more intellectual than visceral.
Visually, the pic has an antiquated appearance that makes it resemble a rediscovered treasure from Im’s earlier catalogue. Beguiling score by Japanese composer Kunihiko Ryo is simpatico with the traditional Korean folk songs that are the yarn’s lifeblood. Other tech credits are fine. Original Korean title means “Thousand-Year Crane,” as in the bird.