Prior to the recent renaissance in South Korean cinema, a 'new wave' that has unleashed bold and internationally-acclaimed films such as "Shiri (Swiri)" and "Chunhyang", the majority of Korean films typically fell into one of three categories: sappy romances, overwrought melodramas, or 'adult' exploitation flicks. Though the 1998 film "Art Museum by the Zoo (Misuhlgwa yup dongmulgwon)" (available on import Hong Kong VCD) seems to fit in the first category, it easily surpasses the mediocre standards set by its predecessors. In addition to a heartwarming script that actually mocks the genre, "Art Museum by the Zoo" benefits greatly from the luminous presence of popular Korean actress Shim Eun-ha ("Tell Me Something") and her chemistry with costar Lee Sung-Jae ("Attack the Gas Station!").
Apparently a semi-autobiographical reflection of director Lee Jeong-hya's own life, the story kicks off with a soldier, Chul-su (Lee), returning to his girlfriend's apartment while on leave. Unfortunately, what Chul-su doesn't know is that his girlfriend Da-hye (Song Seon-mi) moved out a few months ago and is about to marry someone else. To further complicate matters, the apartment is now being rented by videographer/aspiring screenwriter Chun-hi (Shim). Because he has nowhere else to go, Chun-hi reluctantly allows Chul-su to sleep on the couch until he can patch things up with Da-hye, while she tries to finish a screenplay for an upcoming contest and snag the man of her dreams, a senator's aide (veteran Korean actor Ahn Sung-kee, seen recently in "Nowhere to Hide").
Stealing a page from the book on romantic comedies, Chun-hi and Chul-su initially don't get along, as the former is an Oscar-like slob while the latter is an arrogant and chauvinistic male. However, what they both share is a difficulty in finding true love. Chun-hi is unable to start a relationship because of both her shy character and the unrealistic expectations she has about romance. On the other hand, though Chul-su is cynical about love, he clings to the relationship with his estranged girlfriend out of desperation, allowing her to trample all over him in the process.
However, where these two diametrically-opposed personalities finally find some common ground is with Chun-hi's romantic-comedy script. After reading it, Chul-su poo-poos all over her efforts-to-date, labeling it as hackneyed and implausible, and decides to help her write a new draft. They begin writing the new script together, projecting their own insecurities and desires into the story's characters. The audience is then privy to a 'movie within a movie' as the two collaborators imagine their script, "Art Museum by the Zoo", coming to life. Ironically enough, what they imagine their film to be plays out like your typically Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, as it is about the unlikely pairing between an art museum curator (whom Chul-su envisions as his estranged girlfriend) and a veterinarian who works in a nearby zoo (whom Chun-hi imagines as her unattainable senator's aide). Of course, in the process of crafting their romantic screenplay, Chul-su and Chun-hi begin to fall for one another...
"Art Museum by the Zoo" was very popular in Korea in 1998, especially among women, and after watching this charming film, it's not hard to see why. Though the film looks and feels like your typical Hollywood-style romantic-comedy, it doesn't take the easy road of films such as "She's All That" or "America's Sweethearts", where the heroine's only hope of finding true love is to do a make-over. Instead, Chun-hi remains a disheveled and awkward slob throughout the film, and she is able to find true love by merely 'being herself' and through shared experience. Another nice touch is how director Lee plays with the viewer's expectations by having some fun with the film's self-aware 'movie within a movie' segments, parodying every well-worn cliché of lesser romantic comedies.
However, a key aspect that makes "Art Museum by the Zoo" work is the performance of its lead actress. Shim carries the film with her effortless and natural portrayal of the unlucky-in-love heroine that makes it easy for her likable character to connect with the audience. In many respects, Shim exudes the same naivete and vulnerability that marked her unforgettable performance in another film that year, "Christmas in August (Palwol ui Christmas)", and it is easy to see why she is the most popular actress in Korean cinema. In addition, Shim is also nicely balanced with Lee's portrayal of the boorish Chul-su, a turn that subtly reveals the 'nice guy' underneath all the abrasive male bravado.
"Art Museum by the Zoo" may not necessarily break any new ground in the romantic-comedy genre, and you can pretty well guess how things will turn out, but it is still very easy to fall under its spell. Backed by a self-reflective script, quaint production values, and two heartwarming performances with chemistry to spare, "Art Museum by the Zoo" is another example of the buried treasure waiting to be discovered in modern South Korean cinema.
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