A college student becomes entangled with the spirit world in ways both weird and wonderful in “For Eternal Hearts,” a mystical romantic drama that manages to keep its flimsy premise afloat for most of the going. In only his third feature in 17 years, writer-director Hwang Qu-dok mines the same vein of the everyday supernatural that South Korean helmers made their own a few years back (“Ditto,” “Il mare”), but with a subtlety and wryness that give pic a fresh feel. Some festival mileage beckons, especially at Asia-friendly gatherings, for this Aug. 9 local release.
Gentle tone of otherworldliness is set at the start, as university prof Hyeon Su-yeong (Jeong Jin-yeong) is first absorbed by news of a disaster in neighboring Kangweon province, then becomes entranced by two butterflies as he walks to his class. Mood-setting opening, which blurs the line between fantasy and reality, is a vital preparation for auds to take the necessary leap into the main story, which is related by Hyeon to his class, eager to know how he first met his wife.
Flashback starts in June ’79, when student demonstrations against the military-backed government were all the rage. Script doesn’t overdo the parallels between sociopolitical repression and young people’s resort to fantasy as a means of escape, but the succinctly etched setting — with period songs, searchlights over Seoul and security men hustling away rebellious students — nicely shores up a story that literally takes place in another world from the present.
Young Hyeon (Jeong Gyeong-ho) catches the interest of a free-spirited fellow student two years his senior. The volatile, big-eyed beauty (Kim Min-seon) won’t even tell him her name — he dubs her “Pippi,” after the heroine of Astrid Lindgren’s books — but lets him in on her romantic world of the imagination, a world in which she says he should follow a loved one, even into death.
During a student demonstration, Pippi throws herself off a ledge and dies. “After that, mysterious things started to happen,” notes our hero.
For starters, Hyeon starts seeing Pippi as if she’s still alive. Then he’s approached by a hippie biker type (singer Kim C) who’s looking for a private math tutor for his younger sister, Su-ji (newcomer Cha Su-yeon). Claiming her parents died when she was 6, Su-ji lives in a dark old house and seems one sandwich short of a picnic. Nervous Hyeon finally tells her he can’t go on with the tutoring.
Pic pulls a major twist at the hour mark that throws the aud’s perceptions of what is real and what isn’t back into the blender. Story finally makes some kind of sense — on a supernatural level — though, somewhat clumsily, it takes a voiceover by Hyeon to make things 100% clear to the viewer.
Film works best as a sustained mood-piece in which the aud is never quite sure what to believe. Seo Yu-mi’s sets for Su-ji’s house, sepulchrally lit by d.p. Go Myeong-woo, contrast vividly with other, standardly lensed locations, further blurring the line between conventional fantasy and reality. Performances, also, are two of a kind, from the sly humor of Jeong as the seemingly Everyman lead to Cha’s wispy, emotionally fragile Su-ji.
Standout screen presence, however, is Kim as Pippi, who lights up the pic whenever she appears.
Awkward-sounding English title hardly reflects the content and would best be changed for offshore showings. Original Korean one, not much better, means “Into Starlight.”