In graduate school, one of my classmates (or is it colleagues in graduate school?) was having trouble figuring out how to convey the fantastic, but not do magical realism. Another of my classmates (colleagues) recommended she watch Field of Dreams. Everyone was a little thrown by the comment, including me, but then I realized it made perfect sense. Field of Dreams conveyed the fantastic and the magical, but free of genre (in that It’s a Wonderful Life manner).
Il Mare has the same success integrating the fantastic without letting the narrative get swept away by the fetishizing of that element. Boiled down, Il Mare‘s really just about a couple lonely people. Sometimes it’s about the two of them together, but in a lot of ways, it isn’t. It’s two separate–but criss-crossing–narratives, informing one another, affecting one another. The greatest successes come from the raw emotions in the scenes where the leads–Lee Jung-Jae and Jun Ji-hyun–are alone. Jun was only nineteen when Il Mare came out, so she could have been younger when it was filmed, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a young female actor do such fine dramatic work.
But the film, for the majority of it, belongs to Lee. He does a great job driving the film. His story features less establishing narrative than Jun’s–his melancholy is never really defined, but still has to be palpable for the film to work. Whereas Jun’s melancholy is defined and explored, she has to express a silent self-realization in the midst of a big narrative revelation. It’s really impressive to see her pull it off too, given just how melodramatic the scene could get.
Melodrama has an interesting place in Il Mare. At first glance, the film reeks of it–Lee Hyun-seung has some wonderful, emotive shots. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is strangely (for the content) free of high contrast sumptuousness; instead it’s matter of fact and still affects. The film’s loneliness theme works with those grayish skies. The music also plays toward the melodrama–Il Mare‘s music is nearly flawless (there are some bad vocal song choices, particularly an English one… sounding like something out of a mid-1980s TV movie). But even with those poor song choices, the music makes the film work. Il Mare makes an agreement with the viewer early on–through the music, the direction, the photography–and then kind of slips the fantastic in after he or she is already a willing participant.
This Il Mare viewing is my second. The first time, I judged the film’s conclusion rather harshly. To achieve its full potential, the film has to do one thing and it does not. It does something else instead. While it doesn’t break the experience, it’s an obvious thing it needed to do and I think it really pissed me off the first time through.
Il Mare is, on the first viewing, about experiencing the narrative (that initial agreement sort of forces the situation); my reaction was emotional and a tad juvenile. On this second viewing, well aware of the final misstep, I could appreciate a lot more. Jun’s performance, for example, really wowed me. But there are also a couple dozen exquisite sequences, which I was able to enjoy without concerning myself with their ramifications for the plot.
Directed by Lee Hyun-seung; written by Kim Eun-jeong and Yeo Ji-na; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Lee Eun Soo; music by Kim Hyeon-cheol; produced by Cho Min-hwan; released by Sidus Pictures.
Starring Lee Jung-jae (Han Sung-hyun) and Jun Ji-hyun (Kim Eun-ju).