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The Letter
Desert Dream

Happy together: Park Shin-Yang (left) and Choi Jin-Sil (right) in The Letter.
Korean: 편지
Year: 1997  

Lee Jeong-Guk


Jo Hwan-Yoo, Kim Moo-Ryung, Lee Jeong-Guk


Choi Jin-Sil, Park Shin-Yang

  The Skinny: One of the least internationally-known modern Korean cinema classic, this pre-boom blockbuster stands out from the typical Korean melodramas thanks to subtle direction and star performances, especially from actress Choi Jin-Sil, who tragically passed away recently.
Kevin Ma:
Most contemporary Korean film fans probably had their first introduction to Korean Cinema through films such as Shiri, JSA, and My Sassy Girl. Over the years, these films have grown to be known as the "new classics" and the epitome of what Korean cinema can do. However, Korean films have had a far longer tradition than one might know. In 1997, the industry was in the middle of a continuing slump, with only 59 local films taking up a mere 25.5% of the market, despite the emergence of major directors and stars who would later contribute to a large part of the industry boom. Of course, this will go down in history as the calm before the storm, as Shiri would come along in 1999 and change the industry. Despite the slump, one small romantic melodrama swept the country and became the highest-grossing film that year. That film is The Letter.

The interesting part about watching The Letter over 10 years after its release is seeing how this played-out genre attracted local audiences before the formula became a major part of the Korean boom's success. The film actually possesses very little that sets itself apart from its contemporary counterparts, with all the old-fashioned elements intact. However, the effectiveness of the formula here doesn't come from how tragic the twists are or how much tears flow from the characters' eyes. Director Lee Jeong-Guk wisely spends half the film steering away from the story's eventual tear-inducing tragedy. Here, he begins by introducing a very simple romance between aspiring literature professor Jung-In (Choi Jin-Sil) and plant biologist Hwan-Yoo (Park Shin-Yang), who meet during a random encounter and later become lovers.

After a very short courtship (two scenes, to be exact), they're already married and starting their blissful married life. Life goes on as usual for the happy couple, and Hwan-Yoo does various romantic things along the way, making Jung-In happier than ever. They may argue about small things, but they're always able to laugh it off afterwards. Lee almost overcompensates for skimping on the courtship section by spending most of the first half proving that this couple deserves each other. He also concentrates on the loving relationship between the two to set up greater emotional impact when tragedy strikes for couple. The tragedy happens around the halfway mark when Hwan-Yoo, in true Korean melodrama style, suddenly finds out that he has a brain tumor and that he'll most likely die.

As expected, the rest of the film covers how Jung-In deals with the impending death of her husband and its aftermath. In the hands of a less subtle director, The Letter would be considered distasteful in its handling of a tragic love story. However, Lee pulls back by lending much-needed subtlety to the proceedings. Even though the events can sometimes be contrived and tear-inducing in a way that can only happen in the movies, Lee never hammers the emotion into the audience. Even Hwan-Yoo's death scene is presented as an understated and relatively quiet moment that doesn't rely on soaring music cues or overacting for emotional impact.

Lee's direction helps present the incredulous screenplay in a believable fashion, showing what a difference a director can make. Written by Jo Hwan-Yoo, Kim Moo-Ryung and Lee himself, the screenplay is a stew of Asian melodrama conventions that is conceptually ridiculous. The big tumor twist in the middle comes so abruptly that it threatens to derail the rest of the film with its absurdity. However, the writers do manage to make the final twist (hint: it's the source of the film's English title) convincing and affecting enough that it can even recover the goodwill of the cynics in the audience. However, thw twist also comes a bit late in the game and receives too little screen time to make any lasting impact to the overall story.

Like any romantic melodrama, the stars are a huge factor in the film's overall effectiveness. In the case of The Letter, stars Choi and Park may not have as much sex appeal as their prettier contemporary counterparts, but they have plenty of chemistry to make them a convincing happy couple. Park, with his nerdy exterior and a lack of true leading man charm, makes a surprisingly effective romantic lead. However, the true star here is Choi, who has the challenge of portraying all the all the up-and-down stages of a melodrama character. The actress plays up her girl next door image, making it easy to see why this was one of her most popular roles. Unfortunately, Choi tragically passed away earlier this year, and watching her star performance now adds an extra bittersweet poignancy to the viewing experience. Despite the old-fashioned, contrived melodrama, The Letter is worth watching as a bittersweet reminder of Choi's talents. It may be a case of appreciating what you have only after you've lost it, but in this case, it's better to be late than never. (Kevin Ma, 2008)


Region 3 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Korean Subtitles

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image credit: Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen