Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review - Sunny

July 12, 2012

Sunny – South Korea, 2008

Here’s something that I did not learn in my high school history classes: South Korean soldiers were deployed to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. According to Wikipedia, the first regiments started arriving in 1964, and by the end of South Korea’s involvement in the conflict, roughly 320,000 troops had fought in the war. As expected, they did so bravely, and as equally expected, there were casualties – 5,000 in fact. If Jun-ik Lee’s film Sunny does nothing else, it demonstrates the bravery that these men showed. Unfortunately, it also shows the callousness of certain members of the South Korean military hierarchy, who send obviously wounded men back into battle and seem to believe that physical punishment (some would say abuse) is a necessary and affective form of discipline that toughens men up and prepares them for the battlefield. In fact, the film’s first thirty minutes show scenes of soldiers kicking and punching each other and their supervisors ordering soldiers to stand on their heads in what looks to be an extremely painful position. It was so tough to watch that I found myself hoping that what I was seeing was a farce.

It wasn’t, of course. Instead, what we get in Sunny is a variation of that well-worn romantic notion of someone going off to war and the one they leave behind trying to catch up to them. Usually these films involve woman looking for their boyfriends or husbands who are listed as missing after a war has ended. Sunny, however, present us with a young woman named Soon-yi leaving the Korean countryside to find her husband after he is deployed to Vietnam as punishment for getting into a brawl with a fellow soldier. Exactly what she hopes to accomplish is a little hard to say. She has no authority to bring him home, and the man’s mother’s concern that he went there intentionally to get killed never seems truly plausible. This leaves the young woman’s sole motivation in going to Vietnam apparently to find her husband and return to Korea with a bun in the oven.

That sounds a bit insensitive, I realize, and I imagine that somewhere someone is putting forth an entirely logical opposing explanation – that Soon-yi’s journey is one of self discovery, that she is learning about love and just what she will do to protect it. As I’ve said, it’s a plausible theory. However, the film makes the mistake of establishing her husband early on as a bit of a schmuck, not someone entirely worthy of everything that his wife has to endure on her perilous trek across a war-torn country. The other character who has a vested interest in Soon-yi’s quest is equally disreputable. That character would be her mother-in-law, who when confronted with her son’s infidelity says to her daughter-in-law that what matters most is not whom her son has a child with but simply that there is a child. To recap then, the more romantic viewers of this film would have you believe that Soon-yi is discovering her affection for a man who blames her for his infidelity and prefers the other woman, while simultaneously doing a favor for a woman who would be absolutely giddy if her son returned home with a child born to someone other than his wife. Just where is the romance in this scenario?

Part of the film’s trouble is that it puts its protagonist in a position of powerlessness. Characters like Soon-yi are usually strong-willed types who will stop at nothing to find the ones they love. Sunny goes against this. It gives us a character who has to join a band to be able to get into Vietnam, and throughout most of the film, she’s reduced to asking over and over when they are going to go to Hui An, where her husband is said to be stationed. Once the band becomes successful, it is perfectly clear that the ruffian in charge, an unscrupulous saxophonist named Johnny, has absolutely no incentive to ever take her there. Believing that Soon-yi never realizes this requires quite a leap of faith, one that I was not able to make. After all, she’s standing next to him when he’s read the riot act by a local official in charge of approving visas for entertainers who want to go into Vietnam. Surely she couldn’t then be surprised that he turns out to be completely untrustworthy. On a side note, it is Johnny who gives Soon-yi the moniker Sunny. Apparently, Sunny is a more attractive name.

According to the film, Vietnam was a goldmine for bands with beautiful female lead singers, providing of course that the young ladies were willing to do a bit more than just sing. I have no doubt that there is some truth to this. However, the film goes out of its way to portray Korean soldiers as being nostalgic and horny, with an emphasis of the former rather than the latter. Their faces light up, and their feet can’t help moving as Sunny belts out some of their favorite Korean pop tunes. In fact, it practically impossible to imagine any of the men we see in these scenes propositioning Soon-yi, especially not the senior Korean officers. Contrast this to the wild, lecherous way in which the film portrays the American soldiers, practically all of whom approach Soon-yi with folded dollar bills, and a commander, who watches her perform with one of those looks that immediately betrays his rather lustrous thoughts. Depicting a character as having such thoughts is perfectly acceptable. However, what the film asks you to believe a US commander would do as a result of these thoughts is downright insulting.

A film like Sunny needs an interesting heroine to work effectively, and in truth, it has that in Soon-yi, well played by television actress Soo Ae. The problem is that the film bogs her down by pairing her with two characters who seem to be intended to get laughs and two other characters whose character arcs are so blatantly obvious that the characters’ early scenes feel entirely too cliché. In other words, we know these characters are acting cruel in the beginning just so they can change later on. Only in this film the change never seems completely authentic, and instead of letting the actors show their subtle conversions, it relies on an overused piece of symbolism and follows it up with an equally unrealistic moment of drama involving Soon-yi attempting to get on a helicopter. Add to that a soundtrack that puts Sunny’s renditions of slow, heartfelt pop songs against horrific scenes of war and you have a film that just never strikes the right cord – pun unintended. There’s a better film somewhere to be found in this material, one in which an inexperienced young woman goes to Vietnam in search of a husband who is truly deserving of her efforts. In that movie, what she does would tell us about her as a person, and her reunion with her husband would bring earnest, well-earned tears to the audience. Suffice to say, Sunny is just not that film. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Sunny is in Korean, Vietnamese, and English with English subtitles.

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