"The Classic" is director Kwak Jae-yong's long-awaited follow-up to his 2001 smash hit "My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo)". In addition to becoming one of the most well recognized films to emerge from South Korea, "My Sassy Girl" made the director an A-list player and vaulted the careers of actors Jeon Ji-hyun and Cha Tae-hyeon into the realm of superstardom. Thus, it is not surprising that expectations would have been high for "The Classic", with many moviegoers expecting something akin to "My Sassy Girl 2".
But unlike its predecessor, "The Classic" is as the title suggests-- a classic Korean romantic melodrama, as opposed to the bombastic fusion of romantic comedy, genre parody, and melodrama that made "My Sassy Girl" a breakout hit. And though "The Classic" more-or-less succeeds in what it sets out to do, the end result ends up being somewhat diminished by some lackluster performances and an over-extended second half.
"The Classic" begins with college student Chi-hye (Son Yeh-jin of "Chihwaseon") cleaning house and stumbling across a box containing an old diary and some love letters belonging to her mother. Though some of the letters are from her late father, Chi-hye's interest is piqued when she sees some letters written by a man named Chun-ha. The story then jumps back about four decades to detail the love triangle that formed between Chi-hye's mother Chu-hui (also played by Son), her future father Tae-su (Lee Gi-wu), and Tae-su's best friend Chun-ha (Cho Seung-woo, seen recently in "H"). Though Chi-hye fell in love with Chun-ha after a chance meeting in the countryside, she was already betrothed to Tae-su in an arranged marriage.
Meanwhile, in the present, Chi-hye has some romantic entanglements of her own to work out. She is in love with Sang-min (Jo In-seong), the boyfriend of her narcissistic best friend Su-kyeong (Lee Sang-in), yet finds herself unable to express her true feelings. As the story moves from past to present and back again, parallels are drawn between the heartbreak, lessons learned, and travails of mother and daughter, whose destinies are inextricably intertwined.
Right off the bat, fans of "My Sassy Girl" will notice the shades of that film permeating "The Classic". Besides having a similar soundtrack, there are a number of scenes that mirror sequences in Kwak's earlier film, particularly a scene in which Chu-hui and Chun-ha are caught in the countryside during a storm, which viewers will recognize as the melodrama parody in "My Sassy Girl". In addition, the character of Chi-hye shows some signs of 'sassiness', as does the humor in the film, which plays with audience expectations of the genre, such as Chi-hye's response to some doves that have landed on her windowsill in the film's opening scene.
Story-wise, "The Classic" spends most of its running time in the past, detailing the on-and-off-again relationship between Chu-hui and Chun-ha. It is here that the film gets most of its emotional weight, and it is no doubt helped by the strong performances of Son and Cho, who are earnest and affecting in their portrayals of the star-crossed lovers. Lee, as the goofy and not-too-bright Tae-su, straddles the line between bathos and pathos as Chu-hui's would-be suitor who is torn between the ties of friendship and the obligations of family. The Lee Joon-kyu cinematography and attention to detail in the historical set pieces are also a boost to these scenes.
Unfortunately, the drama is not as compelling in the present-day story thread. While this is due in part to the fewer complexities that Chi-hye faces in her pursuit of Sang-min, it is also sabotaged by Jo's relatively lifeless performance as Sang-min. Likewise, Lee's turn as the self-centered, arrogant, and undeniably one-dimensional Su-kyeong is similarly disappointing. Thankfully, Son does more than her fair share in salvaging these scenes with her portrayal of Chi-hye, which displays equal parts of vitality and vulnerability.
The film also runs into some problems in the over-extended second half, at which point it is rather obvious where the story is going given the numerous hints provided along the way. While Kwak's enthusiasm for the material is admirable, the film starts to drag as the melodrama becomes overwrought and emotionally manipulative. In addition, the story ends up taking a backseat to some big-budget set pieces, particularly a detour into Vietnam that will tempt viewers to shout, "Run, Forrest, Run!" and be on the lookout for Bubba.
Execution issues aside, one of the more fascinating aspects of "The Classic" is how Kwak compares and contrasts South Korea of the Sixties and the present. On the one hand, the worlds that mother and daughter inhabit are on opposite extremes, with Chu-hui growing up under a military dictatorship and subject to traditional Confucian norms (such as arranged marriages), while Chi-hye is a product of South Korea's recent democratic and social reforms, with the will and latitude to chart her own future. However, despite the changing times, it seems that some things remain the same, such as the internal and social pressures that prevent Chu-hui and Chi-hye from expressing their true feelings.
Along these lines, "The Classic" also shares some thematic resonance with the films of the 'love across time' genre (such as "Il Mare", "Ditto", and "Failan"), which revolve around protagonists who develop an emotional connection bridging two different time periods. But whereas the 'love across time' genre explores the need to embrace the past in order to understand the present (an apt metaphor for how the growing pains of the past five decades have shaped and become an integral part of the Korean identity and nation), the story of "The Classic" illustrates the simple wish of any mother for their child-- that sons and daughters accomplish in their lives what their parents could not. Thus, on a grander scale, "The Classic" speaks to how the unfulfilled aspirations of past generations, whether they are democratic reforms or gender equality, are being realized in today's South Korea, as witnessed by the contrast made between the worlds that mother and daughter inhabit.
While "The Classic" may not share the exuberance and originality of Kwak's breakthrough hit "My Sassy Girl", it is still a decent entry into the romantic melodrama genre, buoyed by strong showings from lead actors Son and Cho. In addition to fulfilling the emotional demands of the genre, Kwak has also crafted a film that works on a deeper level, poignantly illustrating the aspirations of parents for their children, as well as South Korea's achievements as a nation. It may not be quite "The Classic" it aspires to be, but it comes pretty close.
This movie is available for purchase from DVDAsian.com