When Winter Comes (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A bus driver still not through with his past

South Korean independent film “When Winter Comes” is about one plain guy still not through with his past. Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie gradually develops his quiet emotional struggle along the story, and that is why it is touching to see some tentative hope for a real new beginning for him and his life.

At the beginning, the movie slowly establishes its hero’s past and his current daily life. While there was a time when he was a promising young independent filmmaker, Seok-woo (Kwak Min-gyu) subsequently gave up his filmmaking career for some unknown reason and then went back to his hometown, and the opening part of the film shows us how he works as a local bus driver day by day. When his two co-workers ask him a bit about his past filmmaking career at one point, he is not so eager to talk about that at all probably because of shame or something else. At least, he is not particularly unhappy or miserable about his current status, but his private room full of DVDs and video recordings often reminds him of those past years of his, and he is also not so pleased when he keeps receiving the invitation letter from a local filmmaker association.

On one day, Seok-woo happens to notice an old MP3 player left by someone at a local bus terminal, and he becomes curious about the owner of this MP3 player just because it looks very familiar to him. After he gives it to a young female employee named Yeong-ae (Han Sunhwa), this MP3 player is soon stored in a room for the lost and found, and he frequently asks her about whether there is any person coming to look for it.

Via a couple of flashback scenes, we come to gather why this MP3 player looks so important to Seok-woo. During his filmmaking period, he had a girlfriend who was also one of his fellow filmmakers, but then she left him around the time when he came to give up his filmmaking career. Incidentally, she did not send his MP3 player back to him at that time, and it looks quite possible to him that the MP3 player found at the bus station is actually the one he gave to her.

For confirming whether that MP3 player really belongs to his ex-girlfriend, Seok-woo tries to check out whatever is stored inside it, but, alas, it turns out to be in the need of repair, so he seeks some extra help from Yeong-ae. Because she actually likes him a lot, Yeong-ae gladly helps him finding any local repair shop where that MP3 player can be fixed, and the movie gives us a series of nice nocturnal moments as they search around here and there in the town during one evening. When they eventually find a suitable repair shop, they come to have a little unexpected warm moment between them, and it looks like Seok-woo is also interested in getting closer to Yeong-ae despite maintaining his passive attitude as before.

Fortunately for Yeong-ae, there is a little opportunity for more relationship development between her and Seok-woo. A local table tennis competition will soon be held, and Yeong-ae suggests that he should play along with her in the competition. Again, Seok-woo is not so eager to say the least, but he eventually agrees to start the preparation along with Yeong-ae, and, considering how good they actually are at playing table tennis, it seems that they will do pretty well in the upcoming competition.

Around that narrative point, the movie delves a bit into the area of sports movies, but it keeps focusing on Seok-woo’s growing inner conflict with his past. The story does not specify much on how he came to give up his filmmaker career as well as his ex-girlfriend, but we can instead sense more of how much he feels hurt by any reminder of that time – especially when he suddenly gets one unexpected phone call from his ex-girlfriend later in the story.

Wisely avoiding any unnecessary melodrama, the movie steadily maintains its low-key tone as usual, and director/writer Lee Sang-jin did a competent job of imbuing his film with the palpably realistic sense of daily life. The main characters in the film really look like living through one day after another in their small town, and the movie occasionally shows some sense of humor as Yeong-ae tries to draw more attention from Seok-woo.

The main cast members of the film are believable in their respective parts. While Kwak Min-gyu’s unadorned natural performance humbly carries the film, Han Sunhwa always lightens the mood with her charming presence whenever she appears on the screen, and I enjoy how she and Kwak effortlessly click well together throughout the film. Several substantial supporting performers in the film including Lee Jung-bi and Ahn Min-young bring some extra colorfulness to the story, and Mok Gyoo-ri is also solid in her brief but crucial appearance during the last act.

On the whole, “When Winter Comes” may require some patience from you due to its slow narrative pacing, but it is still worthwhile to watch as a nice character drama, and Lee, who previously made a couple of short films before making his feature film debut here, shows considerable potential as a good filmmaker who knows how to engage audiences via mood and storytelling. In my trivial opinion, this is surely another notable debut feature film of this year in South Korea, and I think you should give it a chance someday.

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