Gyeongju, an ancient city in the southeastern part of South Korea, is renowned as a popular destination for school field trips. Schoolchildren cluster around the remains from the Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57 to A.D. 935) and pose for pictures in front of royal tombs or pagodas that date back 1,500 years.
The city, known for its authentic landscape, partway between the ancient and the modern, will have a more dynamic and aesthetic taste when Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu’s new movie “Gyeongju” comes out in theaters this week.
The movie follows the one-day journey of Choi Hyun, a Northeast Asian Studies professor at Peking University, played by Park Hae-il. He visits Korea after a long hiatus when his friend passes away. On the spur of the moment during the short trip, he visits the city of Gyeongju after remembering a painting on a wall he saw seven years ago. When he arrives at the teahouse Arisol, he encounters the beautiful and mysterious owner Gong Yoon-hee, played by Shin Min-ah. “Arisol” means “beautiful green pine tree.”
The picture is no longer there, but Hyun insists on finding the picture’s whereabouts, leading Yoon-hee to regard him as a pervert. Dismayed by his vain search and Yoon-hee’s rather cold response, he calls his ex-girlfriend Yeo-jeong (Yoon Jin-seo), who comes to Gyeongju to see him. It is their first meeting in seven years, but he is disappointed with her sudden change in attitude. He then appears again at the teahouse.
Yoon-hee, carried away with some unknown feeling, invites Hyun to join her for dinner and drinks with friends. The night deepens, glasses are filled with alcohol and a less awkward ambience prevails between them. After drinks, they continue to roam the city, lying down on a royal tomb before they arrive at Yoon-hee’s house.
The plot is minimalistic, since not much occurs in less than 24 hours, aside from walking around Gyeongju and talking. Taking place over the course of one night, the movie was labeled the Korean version of “Before Sunrise,” the 1995 American romantic comedy about a coincidental encounter on an overnight train to Vienna.
Unlike “Before Sunrise”’s serendipitous and realistic tone, “Gyeongju” has more of a surreal and serious vibe as the couple spends just a day together. The theme of death lurks beneath the seemingly peaceful city of Gyeongju as Hyun and Yoon-hee casually walk around and above the royal tombs and develop subtle feelings for each other. At one moment, Yoon-hee lies down and shouts toward the tomb, “Can I go in there?” It is also at Yoon-hee’s house, which has a view of the tombs and residual memories of her deceased husband, where the two draw closer to each other.
“The city of Gyeongju is very peculiar. Every country has its own royal tombs, but no other countries have tombs in the vicinity of people’s livelihood,” said Zhang at a press conference last week. “Just like the curves of the tomb, life and death are inextricably intertwined.”
The movie is slow-paced, with graceful, often long-take camera shots, which Zhang has gained kudos for. It may feel a bit slow for viewers who are expecting dramatic love scenes or a Hollywood-style, happily-ever-after ending.
While the movie deals in a somewhat serious manner with life and death, it feels lighter than Zhang’s past films, such as “Iri” and “Dooman River.” Both of the characters, Hyun and Yoon-hee, have slightly quirky personalities, peppered with wacky humor.
“After the movie, I now gained the extended horizon of love,” said Park. “Love between man and woman, people to people, and also in Northeast Asia. The movie is about the larger meaning of love,” said Park, who gave a consistent and down-to-earth performance in the film.
Shin is an actress who had been more hyped for her looks than her acting style in the past. But in this movie, her first in five years, she gave a mature and classic performance, which will likely add a kick to her acting portfolio.