Fantasia 2009 Review: ‘Daytime Drinking’ Without the Hangover

24 Jul

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Daytime Drinking (NR) 116 min. Written and Directed by: Young-Seok Noh Starring: Kang-Hee Kim, Sam-Dong Song Cinematography and Original Music by: Young-Seok Noh

cinemagrade b+

 After seeing so many of the Fantasia Fest entries this year (and I’ve got a ton of reviews on the way) one begins to notice the overarching differences between the various strains of Asian film. China seems to still be primarily focusing energy on martial arts and historical action pictures; Japan is all over the wacky place with some really bold dramas and alot of comic-book fueled madness; Thailand is mostly concerned with how to actually kill its stuntmen during filming; and then, there is South Korea. In the past five or six years Korean film has leapt to the forefront of the cinematic landscape. Producing work both provoking, artistic and just plain-out entertaining, Korean filmmaking is in the midst of a significant evolution forward. When I look at movies like Oldboy, The Chaser, or the work of Kim Ki-Duk, what I see reminds me of the artistic explosion that occurred in the film world here in America during the 1970s. That era bought about a new viewpoint through which artists considered the opportunities the medium of film afforded.

Realism was the order of the day, whether it was manifested in the gritty decay of Mean Streets, or the poetic brutality at the heart of Badlands, or even the complex and detailed work of fantasy adventures like Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And right now, South Korea seems to be going through the same thing; experimenting and considering the tools and methods at their disposal and using them to tell stories that they actually care about and are interested in. In several cases this has resulted in films centered around rich human interaction and juxtaposition of man against his environment or culture. Regardless of the form taken, what often ends up on-screen feels new, fresh and daring to our eyes. It’s a movie scene in the midst of a creative expansion, and the bonus is that as it happens we get gifted with films like  Young-Seok Noh’s Daytime Drinking.

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And as it turns out, calling it Young-Seok Noh’s Daytime Drinking is entirely accurate. It appears to be the director’s first film, and IMDB has him tagged as not only the writer and director but also the editor, composer, cinematographer, production designer and sound department tech. Which is a complex way of saying he made it pretty much on his own.  If we had a longer list of credits, I  think we’d find he was the caterer too. And, not only is all of that work commendable, given the final product, I think that fact worked in his favor. Daytime Drinking aspires to be a low-key and langorous comedy, emphasizing the isolation of rural habitations and the transience of modern youth in Korea. Having complete control over the film, Noh has molded and tweaked it in exactly the direction he wants it go and the result is a movie that is genuinely funny, appropriately melancholy and plenty thoughtful in the interim. The trick is making the journey seem incidental, even though Noh is always aware of exactly where he wants to take us. It could have been a raunchy extravaganza like Super Bad, or a screwball farce like most of Korea’s other comedies(i.e. My Sassy Girl). Instead, what ends up on screen is reflective and reflexive, far more Lost in Translation than Road Trip.

 It all starts as most bad ideas do, with a table full of drunken friends conspiring on a whim. Heart-broken Hyuk-jin is still smarting over the break-up with his long-time love when his pals, in an inebriated bid to take his mind off his misery, suggest they all head out on a spur-of-the-moment trip from the bar in Seoul to Gangwondo. Hyuk-jin opposes this idea and thinks it’s ridiculous; after some coaxing and teasing from one friend in particular, he relents and acquiesces to meet them at the town of Jeongseon. But, when he gets there he is all alone. His friends are all at home passed out on the floor. The guy who planned the trip in the first place apologies to him and tells him to go ahead and stay at a hostel his friend owns, and that he will meet Hyuk-jin one day later and they can continue to the next town together.   

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Hyuk-jin, unassuming and easily talked into things wanders around this backwater, plucking from one place to the next, and running into odd, careless and sometimes bewildering characters who all have one thing in common; they want to have a drink with him. As a plot goes, there isn’t much there. Most of it plays like a series of misadventures that feel uncomfortably real. Hyuk-jin reaches the hostel, is quickly shuffled  to a small and inc0nsequential room upstairs and treated as if the owner could care less. He never bothers to clear the name of his friend with the man, and in the morning, after an unusual run-in with a girl staying across the hall, he learns he wasn’t even at the right place. He attempts to pay the hostel owner and then plans to leave town on a train, which only seems to run once a day. The girl from the hostel shows up, requests a drink, and distracts him long enough that now that train’s gone too and he’s left sitting on the bench well into the freezing hours of the night.

You get the picture. This sort of thing could go on and on, and mostly, it does. But it never grows tiresome or tedious because of the light touch and elegant vision that drives it. The film is visually lovely and the cinematography is wonderfully sedate. Parts of Daytime Drinking feel like a lazy fall afternoon and then others are like the damp chill of a winter evening. There are smoky bars and empty beaches, deserted bus stations set against majestic mountains, and later when Hyuk-jin’s friend shows up they sit around in the snow and try to drink away the chill.

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Aesthetically, all of it is beautiful and the compositions are arranged to draw emphasis to the small communities the film’s collection of vagabonds form. Often in the middle of expansive shots we will see two or three characters huddled closely together.  This also helps drive home the idea of the ‘sul’ drinking as a social intersector. People who know little about each other, or don’t have very much in common, sit down for drink after drink. Most of the time they have nothing to say or posess an alternative agenda that they mask with this friendly gesture. And Hyuk-jin cannot, or will not, say no. He becomes like Griffin Dunne in After Hours, wandering lost and hopeless, often as a result of his own easily persuaded nature. At one point he’s ambling down a country road in the early morning without any pants. Later, he encounters a truck driver whose behavior is unsettling to say the least.

It is important to note, however, that Daytime Drinking is not a slogging drama, or a pretentious art film, or even hiding a dark fearsome interior. Hyuk-jin finds himself in some sketchy and occasionally unsavory company but the movie never suggests he is any real danger. Everything is so good-natured and cheerful that even when the movie is pretending to look glum, we never fear for more than Hyuk-jin’s pride. Which is frequently abused with very amusing results. There is a very human element to Daytime’s comedy, and instead of appearing ‘screwball’ it seems based off of real observation and behavior. Maybe thats why I find it so refreshing.

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There isn’t anything I can tell you about Daytime Drinking that could be anymore persuasive than the film itself. If you are a fan of low-key comedies or films with a knack for knowing social commentary, then I think you will find alot to savor here. I adored Daytime Drinking because it manages to lift the spirits without crushing the hopes or feelings of its characters under a cruel screenplay. Too often, American films laugh at the protagonist, instead of with them. In Daytime Drinking we might end up snickering a bit too, but I think Hyuk-jin would understand. Heck, he might even approve.

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4 Responses to “Fantasia 2009 Review: ‘Daytime Drinking’ Without the Hangover”

  1. pkxiong July 24, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

  2. DGDB July 25, 2009 at 2:35 am #

    Wait….so the director’s name is really Young Suck?

    Awesomest!!

  3. hagiblog July 25, 2009 at 10:51 am #

    Sounds like a good flick. Gotta admit that I’m jealous of all the film fests that are going on right now. I still have to wait till next month to enjoy the Toronto After Dark Film Fest.
    I’m looking forward to more of your reviews from Fantasia.

  4. DGDB July 28, 2009 at 5:19 pm #

    pkxiong…..keep fighting for what you stand for girl.

    Respect.

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