The practical difficulties of being an Asian outsider in South Korean society is viewed through a seriocomic but very limited prism in “Hello, Stranger.” Second feature by writer-director Kim Dong-hyun (“A Shark”) intriguingly focuses on two North Korean refugees and a Vietnamese illegal immigrant but, after a promising start, loses its dramatic momentum and the balance between its characters. Trimming by some 10-15 minutes — especially of its overly discursive midsection — would sharpen the pic’s focus but not entirely solve its structural problems. However, given its acute social content, “Stranger” could find a welcome at midrange fests.
Leisurely setup intros Tingyun (Quang Su), an illegal from Vietnam who gets fired from his job in a small metalworkers’ shop; Jin-wook (Park In-su), an escapee from the North who’s resettled in Seoul after passing through a South Korean “training center”; and Kim Hae-jeong (Choi Heui-jin), a female cabbie who fled the North 10 years ago and has virtually lost her accent.
Early scenes of Hae-jeong going about her lonely work (and dealing with abusive, drunken Southerners), and Jin-wook experiencing his first taste of megastores and high-rise apartment blocks, have a quiet, engaging humor. However, Jin-wook’s gee-golly expression and bumpkin manners are a tad overplayed.
Jin-wook and Hae-jeong meet when he loses his way back to his apartment and she gives him a lift, finally revealing that she, too, is from North Korea. In a nice aside, she warns him to stay clear of fraternizing too much with fellow refugees.
Nevertheless, Jin-wook feels so alienated that he takes a trip south to Busan to meet up again with his training-center buddies. En route, he falls in with, and takes pity on, the penniless Tingyun, who doesn’t speak a word of Korean and has become hopelessly lost on his journey to find the Vietnamese g.f. who left their village for South Korea a while ago.
As the story centers at great length on Jin-wook’s story and Tingyun’s odyssey — with neither speaking the other’s lingo — Hae-jeong practically disappears from the movie. A fourth character, a disillusioned widower cop (Bang Yeong) on the verge of retirement, flits in and out of the narrative.
Loss of Hae-jeong — potentially the most likable character — harms the pic and robs it of variety, especially in Choi’s sympathetic perf. Park is OK as Jin-wook, and handles the comedic side naturally, but the joke of the two men who can hardly communicate quickly wears thin. Bang is good as the weary cop, but the script doesn’t really establish his character’s place in the dramatic fabric.
Technical package is modest but pro.