Thursday, February 29, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Beat (1997)

 Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Ko So-young, Yu Oh-seong, Kim Bu-seon, Im Chang-jung, Sa Hyeon-jin, Song Keum-sik

Just two short years after bursting on to the scene with Runaway, Kim found his real runaway hit with the 1995 tale of Korean delinquencies, a film that has become synonymous with both 90s youth and that of a very prolific career boom for one Jung Woo-sung, and that is the undeniable classic... Beat. It has become a piece of pop culture. I've seen it mentioned time and time again within various outlets of Korean television, so there's no denying its place within the streamline of cinema that was beginning to bubble up at the end of the decade, just on the cusp of the explosion of international success that would come the country's way shortly after. A re-release of both this film and City of the Rising Sun are happening in March of this year, so hoping to see both of these works be back in the spotlight again.

Min (Jung Woo-sung) and Tae-soo (Yu Oh-seong) are best friends. Min is a talented academic student in high school, but finds himself getting into fistfights more often than not, causing his smarts to be overlooked by rugged way of life. Tae-soo finds himself on the streets after dropping out of school, the gang life quickly consuming him. Min follows shortly after (dropping out) and the two begin to wonder the streets at night, looking to start fights with whoever crosses their paths. A third friend, Whan (played by the great Im Chang-jung) dreams of opening a restaurant, but he too has dropped out of school and keeps having trouble find him at every turn. Min finds himself with a girlfriend named Romi (Ko So-young), who has her own dreams and ambitions of entering a prestigious university. She keeps pushing for Min to get away from the street life, to use his mind to pursue better things for himself, but alas, life seems to just get in the way, and those neon-lit nights just keep pulling him back. The whole of what makes up Beat's story is a core set of great young characters who are down and out due to societal pressures they feel they can't live up to. The plot is thin, but instead, the focus on characters and their arcs makes this work feel different and unique.

The feeling of Beat is what I tend to love most about it. Those bright lights beamed throughout the damp city streets, neon reflecting off every person and object around. The aesthetic of the decade is front and center, with the haircuts, the fashion style(s), and the soundtrack that often plays throughout, carrying the viewer back to a different time, when everything seemed to feel so free, and yet, as the film reminds us, this was just life, and no matter the trends or fads happening then (which may feel standout to someone watching nowadays), things in life can be tough. One can easily be consumed by the darkness. Struggles are very real and relatable in Beat, but unfortunately, the melodramatic edge sometimes can sort of cut down on those aspects and lessen the impact. Still, you do feel for these characters, even when they seem to be making some frustrating choices. I think the easiest character to get behind is Whan, as Im Chang-jung brings this innocence to his performance, and even when things get darker and he makes certain decisions, you still find yourself rooting for him. The rest of the cast do a fine job as well, and Ko So-young was just dominating as the leading lady of this era, being in so many great works, and her take as Romi is solid, but the film just doesn't seem to go in as much depth with what happens to her as it could. It's commendable that they tried to take an approach on mental health issues, but it just ends up falling short, and feels like a tacked on element in the end.

Getting into the direction of the film. I do feel like it is a vast improvement over the rather dull look and style of Runaway, in which here you can get a sense that Kim was trying to find his voice, however... if this film doesn't have the most amount of that iconic framerate tempering that Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle would make extremely famous for their use together in Chungking Express, which took the world by storm, and found many being influenced by it's style, Kim included... then I could probably back up the work done here a bit more. That being said, I can't, as that technique is done over and over and over again. At first I thought it was being done sparingly and maybe used to reflect the chaotic and blur of a lifestyle that the protagonist and his friends are experiencing. Then I just shut off that analytical processing, as it began to be nearly every other scene. The worst is when it is happening during the fight scenes. The choreography was stepped up and more dynamically structured than before, but that technique kills so many scenes. I found myself becoming enraged more and more. There is even a moment when the characters fight, which looks normal. I thought it stood out, which is so bizarre. Kim was just swept away in a feeling, and it reflects on-screen amateurishly.

At the end of the day, Beat has a rightful place in the canon of modern Korean cinema. Who could ever forget the iconic scenes of Jung Woo-sung, with his arms wide out and his eyes closed, riding the titular motorcycle down the dark night streets, his hair being blown back by the wind, as he just forgets about it all, and in the brief moment, feels so alive. That is sort of the point of the film, I believe. No matter how rough and tough life can get, there are moments of beauty and things to hold on to. Nothing can ever outweigh those moments. Director Kim Sung-soo was building his style up even more significant here. His style would be pushed to the max just around the corner, but that's for another time. Flaws and all, I do wholeheartedly recommend Beat. It is undoubtedly a product of the time, but certain prevalent elements still ring true with today's societies, and not just in South Korea. Recommended.

Written by Josh Parmer

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