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Ad Lib Night
Year: 2006


DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
HB Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean language track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English Korean subtitles
Commentary, TV spots, MTV, etc.

Director: Lee Yoon-Ki
Writer: Lee Yoon-Ki (based on a short story by Taira Azuko)
Cast: Han Hyo-Yu, Choi Il-Hwa, Kim Jung-Ki
The Skinny: This subtle dramedy about a mysterious girl and a dying man's family is not for everyone, especially those who prefer to know everything about their protagonists beforehand. It's slow, it's quiet, and it's also a gem of a movie.
Kevin Ma:

     Imagine two people walk up to you in the street and call you by a name you have never heard of. They try to convince you that they're your childhood friends, but you have no idea who they are. When they realize that you're not who they're looking for, they instead ask you to take up a missing girl's identity for her dying father. This is what happens to our anonymous protagonist in Ad Lib Night, the third film by director Lee Yoon-Ki, who found arthouse fame with 2004's This Charming Girl. Shot in ten days on digital video and originally for a cable television station, Ad Lib Night is a subdued comedy-drama about mistaken identity, solitude and family that's pleasant thanks to its methodical yet light approach to the subject matter. Too bad commercial audiences won't have the patience for small gems like this.
     Based on a short story by Taira Azuko, the film stars Han Hyo-Yu (in a considerably more difficult role than My Boss My Teacher) as the mysterious girl, who asserts that she's not who the men are looking for, but keeps mum about who she really is. However, she agrees to go with them to the rural village anyway - even after she finds shovels in the back of the car (apparently these guys are farmers). Upon arriving, the dying father becomes the least of her problems. With the father lying unconsciousness thanks to morphine, both his neighbors and his brother - who conveniently shows up right on time - sit around eating, drinking, talking, smoking, grieving, and deciding whether this stranger can pass for a daughter that neglected her family long ago. And if they have any extra time, they also break into petty arguments. Meanwhile, the girl tries to pass the time by doing absolutely nothing, and finds herself beginning to literally slip into her new identity.
     The brilliance of Ad Lib Night is that it's so subdued. Lee eliminates the mistaken identity theme right away because everyone already knows that the girl is only pretending to be the daughter. It subverts convention by not allowing any space for unnecessary twists, but still manages to keep the audience guessing as to who this mysterious girl is. However, Ad Lib Night is just as much about this pseudo-family as it is about the girl. The middle section of the film is devoted mostly to the people around the dying man, and during that time the film moves slowly without any real direction (the characters sit, they eat, they talk, they drink, and not always necessarily in that order). However, I can argue that the subdued approach Lee uses to show this united-by-tragedy family slowly unravel feels more gripping than any other family argument onscreen in recent years.
     Han Hyo-Yu, however, also gets her chance to shine. When the mystery behind her character is finally solved, the big reveal scene is shot in a quiet way, with only the girl and the moving scenery outside the car visible as she tells the truth that she's been hiding all along. It may be the single most important moment of the film, but Lee doesn't treat it as such. Han has very little dialogue and maintains a poker face throughout, so when the truth comes out and the emotions finally begin to show on her face, it's a powerful moment, even though there's no outburst or dramatic music to elevate it. Lee's twist, in fact, isn't even all that surprising. Instead, it sticks with the set up; the explanation follows basic logic without having to piece too much together, and it ties the theme of the film together. However, Lee's choice to reveal everything about the girl in the last fifteen minutes does feel slightly contrived, and it becomes the only aspect of the film that feels false.
     Despite the presence of a female protagonist and the potential for lots of family drama, Ad Lib Night is not really a melodrama. In fact, I would call Ad Lib Night an anti-melodrama; the emotions are so muted throughout that when there's a moment where characters burst out in sobs and tears, it's so exaggerated that it slyly reveal small bits about the family and its members rather than provoking any true emotions. Despite its settings being a house surrounded by death, director Lee keeps the proceedings light - the family interactions are often intimate, but do little to drive its minimalist plot, and even the family knows that petty arguments only distract them from the real reason everyone is under the same roof in the first place. Meanwhile, the girl, despite being told about the "important" role she plays, ultimately plays a very small part in the scheme of things. Everything that happens to the girl happens within her thoughts, but Lee amazingly manages to make her a character to identify with through small moments that speak so much about her state of mind without using any verbal exposition. This, folks, is called visual storytelling.
     Of course, there will still be people who can't help but ask those burning questions such as, who the girl is, why she really decided to go along with the whole thing, what the point of all that stuff with the dying man's family is, and just why does the movie move so darn slow? To those people, I can only say: Look closer. (Kevin Ma 2007)

 Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen