I'm going to the moon
I hope you make it soon
'Cause I'm waiting on this moon
--The Smashing Pumpkins' Bye June
Youth is hip, dangerous,
and self-destructive. At least that's what writer/director
Choi Ho wants you to learn from his 1998 directorial
debut Bye June, a dark drama about four reckless
youngsters who indulge in drugs, sex, and rock 'n'
roll. The film also marks the first pairing of Yoo
Ji-Tae and Kim Ha-Neul, both of whom would later become
two of Korean cinema's most prolific actors. Despite
the presence of these talented actors, Bye June
is also a relentlessly unpleasant but impressive piece
of art cinema that foreshadows the coming of three
very talented individuals.
The thing that causes Bye
June to drag is its self-importance. The film
opens during the high school era for Doo-Gi (Yoo Gi-Tae),
Chae-Young (Kim Ha-Neul), and their seemingly musical
spiritual leader/Chae-Young's boyfriend June, who
spouts philosophical speeches about techno music.
However, on the last day of high school, June dies
in a fire, and nothing will be the same again. Two
years later, Doo-Gi and Chae-Young continue to live
their lives with no real direction, going on drug-fueled
trips and having pseudo-sex (apparently, Chae-Young
never got to lose her virginity to June, and she hasn't
felt like losing it to Doo Gi). Doo-Gi is finally
with Chae-Young, but he knows that she hasn't moved
on, and he might simply be a replacement for June.
Then they have some more drugs, and some of them have
some more sex. But finally, EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL.
The strongest element of
Bye June isn't the plot. It vaguely follows
a three-act structure, but director Choi also tells
his story with loads of experimental technique and
a hip techno soundtrack (at least it's hip for 1998).
It's fused with a lot of American rock and, unfortunately,
the usual angst that comes with it (I knew the title
was from a Smashing Pumpkins song because a character
quotes another one of their songs in one scene). The
final product, using both film and blue-tinted video
footage, feels at times infused with the energy of
a 70s experimental film, but it sometimes also drags
when even supporting characters get their chance to
say something profound.
And Bye June does
want to say a lot about youth, life, future, responsibility,
destruction, death, and the list goes on and on. But
it feels like a crapshoot, as if Choi just threw all
these themes at the wall and waited to see which ones
stuck. When it works, Bye June can be undeniably
powerful stuff and very effective in provoking a response
with its visuals. But when it doesn't - including
its vague ending which seems to be teaching an oxymoronic
lesson - the film meanders in its "youth is woe" theme
in the form of a third act twist from out of left
field, as if even Choi had realized the "moving on"
lesson was getting thin.
Even though both the film's
two leads would move on to become high-profile actors,
only one of them really delivers an effective performance.
In his debut, Yoo Ji-Tae is missing the intensity
found in his later performances in One Fine Spring
Day and Oldboy. He spends much of the film
seemingly wandering around, which is convincing since
he plays a drug addict looking for some kind of direction.
But by the time the climax arrives, his supposed anger
and intensity are unconvincing, and he ultimately
doesn't make much of an impression as the protagonist.
On the other hand, Kim Ha-Neul brings an interesting
dark side to Chae-Young; while her high-strung character
doesn't get any over-the-top moments to shine, Kim
is able to go to places that she would never again
reach in her later performances. It may not be a standout
performance, but it's safe to say that you will never
see Kim go anywhere near a character like Chae Young
again, and it's a performance worth treasuring.
The biggest star of the film,
however, is really director Choi Ho (although not
Choi Ho the screenwriter). Educated in Europe, Choi
gets to flex his directorial muscles everywhere in
the film, whether it's setting up a wide shot of a
wrecked department, or using blue-tinted video to
represent an alcohol-fueled rush, or even employing
the obvious technique of fisheye lenses for a wild
party. Despite all of its unpleasantness, the inconsistent
pace, and the self-indulgent post-film school stylish
interludes, it's a promising debut for Choi, who would
finally find his big hit with 2006's Bloody Tie.
It may not be an entirely successful film (post-film
school debut films rarely are), but it's an interesting
discovery from the Korean film time capsule, and an
example of a solid Asian art film. (Kevin Ma 2007)