If you want me to recommend any other South Korean cites besides Seoul to visit for sightseeing, Gyeongju is one of several good places coming to my mind instantly. As a city which was once the capital of the ancient kingdom named Silla(57 BC ~ 935 AD), it has so many interesting archaeological sites and cultural properties that it is sometimes called “the museum without walls”, and, once you go around this wonderful city for one or two days, you cannot possibly agree more to that nickname. Things have changed for more than 1000 years since the fall of the Silla kingdom, but you can encounter its remains here and there in the city, and that imbues the city with a certain distinctive quality to remember.
Zhang Lu’s new film “Gyeongju” is mainly about its hero’s one long day in this city. After leaving South Korea, Choi Hyeon(Park Hae-il) has been a professor of Northeastern Asian Studies in the Pecking University for several years, and he returns to his country for attending the funeral of one of his old friends. As he talks with the other friend who also comes to the funeral, something comes into his mind, and, out of a sudden impulse, he decides to go down to Gyeongju.
As soon as he arrives at the train station, he goes to a little traditional teahouse where he and his dead friend visited during their trip seven years ago. He remembers seeing a traditional erotic painting, called chunhwa, drawn on the wall during their tea time, and it looks like he just wants to know whether it is still there. When he enters its gate, the teahouse looks same to him as before, but several things are changed, and as being served with a cup of tea by its new owner Yoon-hee(Sin Min-ah), he finds that the painting in question is gone now.
After leaving the teahouse, he meets Yeo-jeong(Yoon Jin-seo), a woman he was close to before he left for China. After called by him, she comes from Seoul to Gyeongju, but, for some reason, she says she will go back to Seoul after around 2 hours, and the awkwardness between them is palpable enough for us to sense that there are still unresolved feelings between them. Regardless of whatever happened between them in the past, they are now more distant than ever to each other as leading their own lives separately, and it is apparent that both of them are not very happy with their respective lives at present. As listening to their conversation, we learn that Hyeon married some Chinese woman, but it seems he does not want to talk much about his wife. In case of Yeo-jeong, she is not so glad to see Hyeon, but she has something to say to him, and that leads to a small bitter moment during their lunch.
Hyeon goes back to the teahouse, and he and Yoon-hee become a little closer to each other as a revisiting customer and the owner. Although she initially thought of him as a weirdo when they first met, Yoon-hee treats him a little more nicely during his second tea time at her place. While they plainly interacting with each other as two civilized human beings, the movie wonderfully captures the tranquil mood surrounding them and the teahouse, and it even inserts one brief imagined moment into this part as its stable camera just simply pans from one side to the other side of its space. We also get an amusing scene in which two Japanese visitors mistake Hyeon for a South Korean movie star, and this deadpan moment will look funnier to you if you know that Park Hae-il is one of prominent South Korean film actors.
As the evening approaches, Yoon-hee invites Hyeon to a drinking meeting with others, so he goes to the meeting with her and her friend Da-yeon(Shin So-yul), and he meets Professor Park(Baek Hyeon-jin) and Mr. Kang(Ryoo Seung-wan). Professor Park, who is an expert on North Korea, recognizes Hyeon instantly when he is introduced to Hyeon, and that results in a comic situation of embarrassment while Professor Park is trying to impress Hyeon in his pathetic drunken attempt reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo’s films.
And we are also introduced to Yeong-min(Kim Tae-hoon), a detective who comes late to the meeting and then is gradually revealed to be carrying a torch for Yoon-hee. He quickly regards Hyeon as a possible romantic competitor, but, as a guy who does not know well how to express his feeling while trying not to hurt the feeling of the woman he loves, he just stays besides them as long as possible.
The problem is, Yoon-hee and Hyeon do not seem to know what to do with something felt between them, either. They and Yeong-min eventually end up spending some private time together as their late night goes on, but this scene is not played out as you would expect from such a situation, and that brings another amusement to the story. As suggesting the feelings beneath their reserved attitude, Park Hae-il and Sin Min-ah do not overplay whatever may be going on inside their characters, and Kim Tae-hoon holds his place well as the third guy who somehow becomes more understandable and sympathetic despite his blunt behaviors.
While all these things and other things are happening in the movie, Gyeongju becomes more than a mere background, and the director/writer Zhang Lu brings a very vivid sense of locations onto the screen. The sights in the movie are mostly familiar to me, but they remind me of why this city is worthwhile to visit again later. After all, not many cities have a bunch of big green mounds as cultural properties inside them, and I was particularly impressed by a very lovely night scene showing the city landscape as viewed from the top of one of these mounds(Caution: as said in the movie, you are not allowed to climb up to any of them in any case).
Compared to his previous films such as “Dooman River”(2010), “Gyeongju” is a lightweight work from Zhang Lu, but it is one of the more interesting South Korean films of this year. The movie is rather long(its running time is 145 minutes), but watching it during last night was an experience both engaging and soothing for me. It is slow indeed, but it is constantly compelling and humorous, and I had several good laughs during some of its playful moments. Although I think it could have been better if its finale had been shortened a bit, this is still a charming journey to be watched on the whole despite its flawed destination.