In its calm, delicate pace, “A Midsummer’s Fantasia” slowly and subtly draws us into the sunny and soothing summer days in a rural Japanese city. During its first part, it leisurely looks around the city with meditative curiosity, and we look and listen close to various people who tell us a bit about their lives in front of the camera. And then the movie shifts itself onto a different mode during its second part, and it becomes more playful and poignant as wandering around with two different characters who are possibly inspired by the journey shown during the first part.
Shot in black and white film, the first part of the film revolves around a field inquiry in Gojo, a small city located in Nara Prefecture, Japan. We meet South Korean director Tae-hoon (Im Hyeong-gook) and his translator Mi-jeong (Kim Sae-beok), and we see them meeting Yusuke (Ryo Iwase), a city hall employee who will accompany them during their first day in the city.
While getting to know more about Gojo through him, Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong become interested in how Yusuke came to live in Gojo. He studied literature at first, but then he tried to be an actor, and then, after realizing that he was not a good actor, he eventually found himself settling in this quiet place as a public servant. Sometimes life leads you to where you have never expected, and the same thing can be said about one aging couple, who quietly reminisces about how they hopped around different businesses during many years of their long married life.
The movie continues to look closer to the people of Gojo and their past like that. The opening scene shows the warm, cozy environment of a local restaurant, and the old faces of the customers suggest years of life and experience behind them as the camera attentively observes these people for a while. Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong later meet a local middle-aged guy who will be their guide instead of Yusuke, and it turns out that man also has an interesting life story of his own. While they spend time together at some cafe, a usual customer at the cafe talks about how long he and the mistress of cafe have known each other, and we come to listen to him as the camera looks at him with quiet interest.
Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong also go to a rural town mostly occupied by old people, and they meet an old lady who has lived her whole life in her hometown. The town has become emptier than before due to the absence of youths in the town, but she is content with her remaining life, and her town is shown with serene beauty as the camera looks around houses and forest trees. After the brief visit to an empty elementary school near the town, Tae-hoon begins to get an idea for his film, as the night begins with the fireworks in the sky.
The director/writer/co-producer/co-editor Jang Kun-jae made his film as a project commissioned by the Nara International Film Festival through Naomi Kawase, who produced the film with Jang. Like what is shown during its first part, he spent some time in Gojo for writing his screenplay, and I heard that many of the actors in the film are local non-professionals and some of them actually tell about themselves during their scenes. The movie is also humorous at times, and the main source of its low-key humor is the bilingual communication between South Korean and Japanese characters, which is usually mediated by Mi-jeong’s bilateral translation.
After establishing the vivid sense of place and people so well through this documentary-like approach, the movie instantly moves to its second part. Shot in color film in contrast to the first part, the second part is about a tentative romance tale between a South Korean tourist named Hye-jeong (Kim Sae-beok) and a young local farmer she meets in Gojo. Before going back to South Korea, Hye-jeong decides to spend her last two days in Gojo, and she encounters Yusuke (Ryo Iwase) when she is looking for any interesting sight to see in the city. As they walk around the city together, it is apparent through their interaction that they enjoy each other’s company, and Hye-jeong agrees to spend more time with him on the next day.
Because many things shown or mentioned during the first part appear again along with the same main performers, you will naturally begin to wonder whether this is a story imagined by Tae-hoon. Hye-jeong may be a character inspired by an anecdote told to Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong at one point during the first part, and Yusuke in the second part can be a more localized version of Yusuke we saw from the first part.
Regardless of that possibility and others implied in the second part, its summer romance between two strangers is engaging to watch thanks to the natural rapport between its lead performers. Deftly going back and forth between two languages, Kim Sae-beok is charming and graceful in her two different roles, and her co-actor Ryo Iwase is equally wonderful in his likable dual performance. During a longtake scene where the camera patiently observes them talking and walking with each other along the street, their tantalizing chemistry is clearly visible on the screen, and that may take you back to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklator’s “Before Sunrise” (1995).
“A Midsummer’s Fantasia” is the third work directed by Jang Kun-jae. He previously directed “Sleepless Night” (2012), and I was very impressed by his restrained but confident presentation of a very intimate character drama about a young couple who may soon have to make an important decision for their life. As he did in his previous film, Jang lets his story and characters flow by themselves under his effortless direction, and many feelings and thoughts felt below the surface are effectively conveyed to us through subtle and elegant touches. This is a small but fabulous work full of charm and mood to savor, and you will want to revisit this relaxing movie on any summer day.