J & X At the Movies Scandal Makers
Cha Tae-hyeon, Park Bo-yeong, Hwang Seok-hyeon, Hwang Woo-seul-hye, Lim Seung-dae
comedy, drama, family
NAM Hyun-soo was once a popular idol star among teens and worshiped liked a god. Although he’s in his mid-thirties now, he’s still a sought-after celebrity and the host of a popular radio show. But one day a very young single mom named Jung-nam sends her stories to the radio show that Hyun-soo hosts. Her stories about her longing to meet her father whom she’s never seen before grips the nation and catapults the ratings to make it the most popular program. But to his surprise, Hyun-soo later confronts none other than Jung-nam, and her 7 year-old boy, Gi-dong. Jung-nam and Gi-dong invade Hyun-soo’s home and his radio station, claiming that Hyun-soo is her father. Hyun-soo does what he can to salvage his celebrity image.
Going up and down the stairs, agitated like a baby whose favorite toy has just been stolen; sweaty, cursing at everyone and everything because that warm cover called status quo was pulled away. That is more or less the most fitting description for the good old stock exchange, or any business which dabbles in that crazy game in a time of crisis (and what business doesn’t?). You’d think that seasoned economists and market analysts would be a lot more pragmatic, almost Vulcan-like in their approach to market fluctuations, but as we all witnessed in the last eight months, the psychological fanfare which adorns this jungle of dead presidents and delirant cable TV messiahs is just as important as the actual numbers, sometimes even more. It’s inevitable, then, that the film business would suffer greatly from this situation, much more so than any other entertainment sector. For instance, TV dramas adapted to the fall of ad revenue in Q4 of 2008 rather quickly, by cutting budgets left and right, eliminating unprofitable timeslots and putting all the eggs in the somewhat comfortable, smelly basket of mainstream acceptance, whatever it took to fill it. But films?
Blaming the current economic crisis alone would be a bit naive, as the real problems began when the screen quota was practically made into a formality a few years back, sending the already fickle and feeble confidence of venture companies and assorted investors to the bottom of the abyss. Let alone funding blockbusters, Chungmuro is now having a hard time finding the money to shoot what in 2005 were considered mid-budgeted affairs, with the average budget for this year expected to be the lowest in quite some time. When there is no money, the potential to produce risky projects starts plunging near the zero, and along with it goes the prospect of diversity, which in turn forces production companies into a pretty prohibitive crossroads: the project film (based on a certain gimmick, usually surrounded by genre tropes, and largely devoid of stars) or the star vehicle. You do find exceptions, such as the work of star directors or shocking debuts like Ãß°ÝÀÚ (The Chaser) and ¿µÈ´Â ¿µÈ´Ù (Rough Cut), but essentially those two roads are all that is left for this once very bombastic industry. Yet, sometimes a few producers take a chance, and are rewarded for it.
Kang Hyeong-Cheol’s °ú¼Ó½ºÄµµé (Scandal Makers) had never too much in the way of ambitions. Largely ignored by investors in its earlier stage of production, Toilet Pictures’s (the production company led by horror aficionado, director Ahn Byung-Gi) first comedy after years of horror films had only one marketable star (Cha Tae-Hyun), a relatively low budget of 2.5 Billion won, and the mere ambition of recouping its costs, for which 1.5 million admissions would have been enough. Taking an old script director Kang had written years before entitled °ú¼Ó»ï´ë (Three Generations at Full Speed), producer Ahn went for two major themes: first, that “family” feeling which pervaded most of the biggest hits in Korean cinema history, in one way or another – think of ±«¹° (The Host)’s deliriously dysfunctional kinfolk, or the traditional brotherhood behind ÅÂ±Ø±â ÈÖ³¯¸®¸ç (Taegukgi). Second, that of making Korea’s equivalent of a Working Title-like production, toning down all the melodramatic or overly comic undertones which still plague many a local comedy. And it surely paid off.
Scandal Makers is a pretty significant proof that word of mouth can still make a bigger impact than intrusive marketing campaigns or the bulldozer distribution policies of the majors. It’s in some ways a revenge of the moviegoer, choosing to support this “little film” so enthusiastically over highly-touted commercial Titanics, just like they did for recent indie wonders like ¿ö³¶¼Ò¸® (Old Partner) and ¶ËÆÄ¸® (Breathless). Starting with explosive buzz right from its paid advance screenings (exactly the producers’ intent), the film went on to combine positive reviews with an impressive theater run, mixing luck (having to fight the right contenders, being released on the perfect period, and riding on the wave of public sentiment, which was literally begging for something like this) with smarts, pushing exactly the right buttons. The result? Over 8 million tickets sold, a new star (and a half!) made, and the proof that little films made with good intentions can always win over the crowd.
Arguably Cha Tae Hyun’s biggest success since My Sassy Girl, Scandal Makers has become the 4th largest grossing Korean movie at the box office selling more than 4 million tickets in just 26 days. Which is pretty amazing i think considering how Cha Tae Hyun has really not had a big success at the box office since My Sassy Girl…maybe i’d give him Mask of Dal-ho as a possible “success”.
The plot is absurd with Nam Hyeon-soo (Cha Tae Hyun) unknowingly getting his sweet heart pregnant as a 9th grader and then later with his now grown up daughter repeating the ordeal at 10th grade. However, it manages to create an entertaining setting for the rest of the movie. The movie is cast quite modestly but the acting is solid and Cha Tae Hyun certainly gives one of his best and natural performances since My Sassy Girl. Of course it’s quite obvious by now that these kind of roles seems the only roles Cha Tae Hyun can really play, but to each their own.
While the movie is quite light hearted and funny there are no doubt some tear jerker moments when it seems the acceptance of these new elements in Hyeon-soo’s life are too much for him to handle. It underscores however subtly the prominent issue of the perception both socially and realistically, that single mothers in Korea face today.
Of course the movie certainly has some large gaping holes in the story. The sudden appearance of the boy’s father seems accidental and comes in as an afterthought in the movie. There is little to no mention of the grandmother, and strangely Hyeon-soo never really thinks about her. I felt in general Hyeon-soo would have fit the role of the father more than the grandfather, but perhaps the added “layer” was done to separate this movie from the other movies of a similar plot.
Overall it’s easy to see why this movie was such a popular hit – it’s entertaining, funny, endearing (largely due to child actor Hwang Seok-hyeon), and heart warming.
Kim Jung-Eun, Jeon Ji-Hyun, Son Ye-Jin, and now Park Bo-Young. What could these ladies have in common? Directly or indirectly as it may be, Cha Tae-Hyun made them stars.
Calling anyone “starmaker” is just as silly as marking one’s career with a fastidious moniker like “box office draw,” but in some ways the term seems to fit Cha quite well, and it’s not just a matter of being blessed with the right leading partner at the right time. Take a look at Cha’s roles in, respectively, 1998’s ÇØ¹Ù¶ó±â (Sunflower), 2001’s Pan-Asian hit ¿±±âÀûÀÎ ±×³à (My Sassy Girl), the 2002 melodrama ¿¬¾Ö¼Ò¼³ (Lover’s Concerto), and finally this year’s biggest hit, °ú¼Ó½ºÄµµé (Scandal Makers), and you’ll easily see why. Set aside the varying degrees of talent each actress possessed at the time (from the almost brutal histrionics Kim Jung-Eun was displaying in 1998, to the already considerable talent Park Bo-Young had displayed before her career making film), the unchanging axiom at play has always been Cha “hiding” behind his fellow lead, becoming a sort of shadow, aiding her performance in ways that are as subtle as difficult to sense, just like a fine contrabass riff supporting the more flamboyant stage antics of a trumpet in a jazz concert. Cha is certainly no great actor, but he knows what he’s good at, and when it comes to playing a sort of narrative punching bag for feisty female co-leads, he is without a doubt one of the best in the country, as Scandal Makers once again shows.
The ace hidden in his sleeves is reaction acting. Park Bo-Young confirms the great impression she’s made over the last two years, both in TV sageuk like ¿Õ°ú ³ª (The King & I) or ÃÖ°Ä¥¿ì (Strongest Chil-Woo) or films like the quirky and peculiar ÃÊ°¨°¢ Ä¿ÇÃ (ESP Couple): she’s just as feisty as she is sweet, combining cutesy and strength that makes her character resonate on a deeper level. But see her next to, say, indie darling Im Ji-Gyu (playing her rather cranky boyfriend) as opposed to her scenes with Cha. It’s the same good acting, but the way the now 14 year (!) veteran envelops her every spark with the very best reaction acting this genre would require improves their chemistry tenfold. And that is perhaps what elevates Scandal Makers from a simple date movie to one of the most enjoyable commercial films of recent memory, almost reminding of the glory days of 2002-3. There is nothing here that is either new or deviating from the conventional tropes of the genre, and if you wanted to get pedantic, you could even say it’s a little too tight for its own good. But that’s the point, this film knows its limits, and never forces any pay-off (be it comic or melodramatic). Timing is everything here, from the clever use of child actor Wang Seok-Hyun’s pillows of comic relief, to melodrama that really never overstays its welcome.
Quintessentially commercial elements, yes, but served in good faith, without making it painfully obvious that this is really just a big farce to put some asses in the seats. Compared with the forced and convoluted histrionics of the various gangster comedies which had been polluting Chungmuro’s theaters for the last few years, Scandal Makers’ laughter and tears feel a lot humbler, something the film earned and didn’t just steal from the viewer. The merit goes to director Kang, who keeps a somewhat detached approach to even the most extreme events (on both sides of the emotional spectrum), both in terms of camerawork and especially as far as the music goes (another fine score by Kim Jun-Seok). It’s that air of credibility even in the midst of far-fetched situations which keeps you interested until the very end, no matter how conventional the proceedings are.
Scandal Makers could easily become the blueprint for low-key commercial cinema of the post-bubble era for Chungmuro. And that means avoiding intrusive star power to instead go back to proper casting, banking on scripts that are solid in spite of their lack of originality, and on directors that have the ability to maintain a certain visual finesse without making the film a poseur’s playground — think of °íÞÝ (Death Bell). If you add themes that speak to the public, such as this film’s family-oriented leit motif, then you’ve got a potential hit in your hands. Pour some providence into the cauldron, and things could become even more successful. And fun. Scandalously so.