Il Mare by Lee Hyun-Seung (Review)

“Il Mare“ s simple, well-paced story, honest performances, and heartfelt characters ensure that it’s more than just eye candy.
Il Mare

If I recall correctly, Il Mare was my introduction to the world of Korean cinema, specifically the world of Korean melodrama. Given my predilection for kung fu and insane action movies, a romantic drama might seem like an odd introduction. But like Chungking Express, Il Mare was an eye-opening experience; it’s not your typical melodrama, or rather, it’s a melodrama done so well that it avoids many of the sugary, stomach-turning cliches that can plague the genre. Oh yeah, and it’s a time travel movie too.

Well, sort of…

As the movie opens, a young woman named Eun-ju is moving out of “Il Mare”, a secluded house that juts out on stilts over the ocean. Just before she leaves, she puts a note in the mailbox for the future resident, asking them to forward an important letter to her new address if it arrives. The house’s new resident, a young man named Sung-hyun, finds Eun-ju’s letter as he’s getting the house ready. But he’s surprised to find the letter is dated 1999, since the year is actually 1997.

Thinking the letter is a joke at first, he writes back to Eun-ju, who drops by the mailbox to see if her letter has arrived. Although both think the other is kidding (after all, Eun-ju knows it’s really 1999), the truth slowly dawns on them. Somehow, the house’s mailbox is sending their letters to eachother across time. Curious about this, the two develop a correspondence. At first, it’s playful, as the two quiz eachother on what’s happening in their respective times and help eachother out (Eun-ju makes a helpful weather prediction for Sung-hyun, and he finds a tape player that she lost in the past).

Thankfully, the film never tries to explain the mailbox. The even-handed approach to the “time travel” aspect keeps it from turning into some cheap gimmick. In fact, by not explaining anything, the movie makes it that much easier to accept. And maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me talking, but I’ll admit there’s a part of me that really wants to believe that, when two people are meant to find eachother, destiny finds a way to make it happen (even if it involves breaking the fundamental laws of nature). But more importantly, Sung-hyun and Eun-ju don’t care how the mailbox works. They’re just glad to have someone to talk to, as both are rather lonely individuals.

Eun-ju lives in the big city, where she clearly feels uncomfortable. When she’s not working in a comic store or doing voiceovers for a puppet show, she mopes around her apartment waiting for a call from her estranged boyfriend. Ji-hyun Jun’s performance as Eun-ju is a complete 180 from her role in My Sassy Girl, but it’s just as enjoyable, and I’m sure to be looking out for any of her future movies. On the other hand, Sung-hyun’s sense of isolation stems from the pain of his father’s abandonment. After dropping out of architecture school, he cuts off many of his relationships, content to work construction and spend time alone in Il Mare. That is, until Eun-ju comes along.

Il Mare takes its time developing, slowly revealing bits and pieces about Sung-hyun and Eun-ju, just as they do in their letters. Over time, the two begin to slowly open up to eachother, and we get deeper looks into the sadness that filters through both of their lives.

The film has an airy, open feel to it, and despite the occasionally overwrought moments, never really makes itself heavier than it needs to be. Hyun-seung Lee’s directing ensures this, with graceful camera movements and gorgeous cinematography (especially the seaside and countryside scenery). A special process was used to make the scenes as vivid as possible and it works splendidly, suffusing the film with light (unfortunately, it is spoiled in some scenes by the DVD’s compression levels). Both the film’s look and pace often remind me of Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle’s work on In The Mood For Love, though Il Mare is nowhere near as moody and intense.

The obvious question is not if the two will meet, but how and when. Will Eun-ju find a way to travel back in time? Will Sung-hyun wait patiently until he can meet up with her sometime in the future? How will the director accomplish whatever happens without eliciting any groans from the audience? Just as you’re asking yourself these questions, the film throws in a tragic twist that throws a wrench in the proceedings.

With a film that looks and sounds this gorgeous — the lovely music, primarily lush piano arrangements, also adds to the film’s graceful nature — it’s easy to be swept away by its aesthetics. However, Il Mare’s simple, well-paced story, honest performances, and heartfelt characters ensure that it’s more than just eye candy (and that all but the pickiest of viewers will look past the film’s temporal logistics — after all, this isn’t Star Trek). Rather, it’s a genuinely warm, engaging story that you can look forward to watching with great relish each time.

And I just have to mention this: One of my main reasons for buying a region-free DVD player was so I could watch this movie again (it’s currently available as a Region 3 disc only). Even though it’d been over a year since I last saw Il Mare, that’s the sort of impression it made on me.