Directed by: Kwak Jae-young (곽재용)
Starring: Son Ye-jin (손예진), Jo Seung-woo (조승우), Jo In-sung (조인성), Lee Ki-woo (이기우)
The Film: After the mega success that was My Sassy Girl (2001), there was a lot of buzz around director Kwak Jae-young who had seemingly found a way to master the romance genre. When his next picture was set to be another romance, I had doubts as to whether it could match the magic and freshness of My Sassy Girl. Quite riskily, rather than following the same proven formula for success (like we usually see in Hollywood), The Classic takes an entirely different approach and was made as much more of a melodrama than a comedy, and places its main love story back in 1968. However, the script also cleverly interweaves a modern day love story set in 2003 (with hints of My Sassy Girl) into the mix and effectively gives the audience a double dose of everything.
The film opens in 2003 with Ji-hae (Son Ye-jin) going through a dusty box that contains her parent’s old letters and diaries. At the same time and through some fairly fun expositional narration, we quickly learn that Ji-hae has fallen for her best friend’s boyfriend, Sang-min (Jo In-sung), whom she ghostwrites love letters for on her friend’s behalf. Interestingly, while Ji-hae is tidying up, she notices something odd about the names written on the letters. As she begins to read them, the film shifts back to 1968 where Oh Joon-ha (Jo Seung-woo) is ghostwriting love letters for his best friend, Tae-soo (Lee Ki-woo), to send to a girl named Joo-hee (Son Ye-jin).
Joo-hee, also played by Son Ye-jin, is Ji-hae’s mother, and her relationship with Tae-soo and Joon-ha become the main story of The Classic. The story of her mother’s first love hits home for Ji-hae as she is currently tackling her own feelings of first love. As she discovers the incredible story behind her parent’s first love and and the emotional roller coaster of circumstances that brought them together, the film periodically checks back in to 2003 where Ji-hae channels the strength from her mother’s story to sort out her own predicament.
The Classic is filled with scenes that exuberantly portray both the joys and the pains of innocent first love. While the melodrama is laid on so thick at times one can hardly see through it, being in combination with one of the best soundtracks out there it somehow manages to strike all the right chords on the emotional scale. There are so many scenes in The Classic that could be “the memorable scene” in any other romance film, which makes it arguable that director Kwak might have played every card in his deck for this one since he has struggled for another hit since. He could have easily saved more than five different highlight sequences for future films (perhaps making Windstruck (2004) more memorable?), but has chosen to present them all here in one sort of romantic magnum opus.
As far as leading actors go, they don’t get any better than Son Ye-jin (A Moment to Remember, 2004; The Last Princess, 2016), Jo Seung-woo (Marathon, 2005; Inside Men, 2015) and Jo In-sung (A Dirty Carnival, 2006; The King, 2017). To watch The Classic now in 2017 is also to see these actors who have all gone on to have incredible careers now 10 years younger and a bit baby-faced. This somehow adds to the nostalgia that the film was originally going for as a period piece and to contrast the modern love story elements and setting established in My Sassy Girl, thus helping The Classic age finely. The late 60’s and early 70’s was a time in Korea that saw a lot of change. The film touches on aspects ranging from entering the Vietnam war, to becoming more economically and technologically advanced as a nation, and even to protesting dictatorships that would arise.
One does not have to be a romantic film junkie to appreciate what The Classic has to offer, although it will certainly help. Even with the heavy doses of melodrama, there are still a lot of laughs to be had in The Classic with minor gags peppered throughout which keep the film light on its feet most of the way through.
For someone like myself who tends to enjoy more extreme and experimental cinema, there remains a soft spot close to my heart for movies like this that fulfill a vision so purely and perfectly. From the acting to the editing and music selection, this is one of those movies where one can really feel the care and passion that went into the project. I chose The Classic as the first film in my new series of classic Korean movie reviews not only because of its name, but because I believe it is a true classic for all time and one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen. Just give it a try and I dare you to keep a dry eye!
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