In the spring of 2003, the long-standing dominance of melodrama among Korean film genres was called into question. Once the darling of film producers, given their broad appeal to the female demographic and their relatively inexpensive production costs, Korean melodramas have been gradually losing their grip on the domestic box office since the start of the latest 'Korean New Wave' in the late 1990s. Whereas two melodramas, "The Letter (Pyeon ji)" and "The Contact (Cheob-sok)", sat at the top of the list of 1997's homegrown box office champions, subsequent years have seen the popularity of melodramas slipping in favor of other genres, including action-oriented blockbusters and the proliferation of comedy sub-genres (romantic, gangster, and most recently, sex).
While industry pundits have highlighted a number of reasons for the declining interest in melodrama, including renewed optimism among the Korean moviegoers having survived the Asian economic crisis, and increased experimentation in different genres by the country's filmmakers, one key reason may be that the Korean melodrama has literally been 'done to death'. With so many melodramas involving stories of unrequited love, lovers kept apart by circumstances beyond their control, and the emotional repercussions of death, there is little doubt that the genre may have hit a creative rut. Whereas some filmmakers have tried to infuse innovation into the artform, such as with "Il Mare", "Ditto (Donggam)", and other films of the 'love across time' genre, there are still a number of productions that trade in the same tired old clichés and tear-jerking conventions. One such film is the predictable and run-of-the-mill "Madeleine".
Framed by soft music and sentimentality, "Madeleine" kicks off with the cute chance meeting between its twenty-something romantic leads, who have not seen each other since high school-- quiet college student Chi-suk (Jo In-seong) is an avid reader, while Hui-jin (Shin Min-a) is a bubbly hairstylist. The aggressive Hui-jin wastes no time in inserting herself into Chi-suk's schedule, and she suggests that they go steady for one month in the style of a walk-away car lease-- if they have not fallen in love by month's end, they will go their separate ways with no questions asked. Though Chi-suk is at first reluctant, he acquiesces to Hui-jin's request and pretty soon they are spending quality time together, such as taking bike rides in the rain, preparing meals at her place, and playing computer games at the local Internet café.
However, as the end of the month-long period nears, some unexpected complications arise that place the budding relationship in jeopardy. One, Chi-suk runs into Sung-hae (Park Chong-a), another girl he had a crush on in high school, who has since blossomed into a beautiful and vivacious rock singer. In addition, it seems that the feelings were mutual, as Sung-hae is still in love with Chi-suk. Second, Hui-jin's past catches up with her, forcing her to make some very tough decisions that leave her resigned to letting Sung-hae have the man of her dreams.
At the helm of "Madeleine" is the director of the 1998 fantasy-horror feature "The Soul Guardians (Toemarok)", Park Kwang-choon. With this sophomore effort, Park goes through the motions of romantic melodrama, recycling bits and pieces of other films without bringing anything new to the table. As a result, "Madeleine" feels like the awkward amalgamation of two other films, "My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo)" and "Sex is Zero (Saekjeuk shigong)", and it might as well have been called "My Sex is Zero Girl". Viewers will experience an uncanny sense of cinematic déja vu in the film's first half, where a naïve Chi-suk is subject to the whims of a flippant Hui-jin, à la Kwak Jae-yong's 2001 romantic comedy. And if the film was not cute enough, Park even inserts some unnecessary (not to mention poorly done) computer animation to dramatize the gaming sessions between the two leads. And for those moviegoers who may have seen the 2002 sex comedy "Sex is Zero", it becomes fairly obvious what will transpire as the second half of the film rolls around. Unfortunately, the end result of such lackadaisical effort is a hollow emulation of a romance with no heart or soul.
The film also falls flat due to the lifeless performances by the romantic leads. While Hui-jin's aggressive and happy-go-lucky behavior makes sense in the context of what is revealed in the film's second half, "Volcano High (Whasango)" alumnus Shin's portrayal comes across as stilted and forced. Similarly, Jo is terribly bland and inexpressive as Chi-suk, similar to his unremarkable turn as a love interest in 2003's other big romantic melodrama, "The Classic". The supporting cast is equally nondescript, such as Shin's co-star from "Volcano High", Kim Su-ro, cast against type as Chi-suk's gentle friend who aspires to become a baker. However, one supporting player does stand out, and that would be Park as the 'rocker chick' Sung-hae, who is easily the most engaging character on the screen. It also doesn't hurt that the songs that character sings are quite catchy, making the DVD's bonus soundtrack CD a keeper.
Melodrama stands at a crossroads in South Korea. On the one hand, the costly failures of big-budget productions in 2002 have urged production companies to retreat into relatively inexpensive melodrama films. Furthermore, with growing uncertainty over North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, the mood of South Korean moviegoers may soon favor a revival of the genre. However, if filmmakers continue churning out creatively bankrupt entries such as "Madeleine", then audiences will continue to 'vote with their feet', leaving the well-tread genre behind in the dust.
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