57th San Francisco International Film Festival Wrapup (pt. 1)—“Our Sunhi,” “When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism,” and “Firestorm”

by on May 9, 2014

A love triangle or quadrangle, excess drinking, and wryly embarrassing behavior: these are the raw materials for many films from veteran Korean auteur Hong Sang-Soo. “Our Sunhi,” Hong’s 2013 Locarno Film Festival award-winner, takes these elements to create a look at self-delusion and emotional projection.

Ex-film student Sunhi (Jung Yu-mi) returns to her old college to obtain a recommendation letter from her teacher Choi Donghyun (Kim Sang-joong) for her foreign study application. While waiting for Professor Choi’s letter, the ex-student accidentally encounters ex-lover and aspiring director Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun), who still smarts from their break-up. Sunhi eventually meets Jaehak (Jung Jae-young), a more successful director whose desire for the young woman also gets sparked. Which man will claim Sunhi’s heart becomes a matter for debate.

Hong’s comedy is a definite slow-burner. The humorous potential of the four main characters doesn’t come through until, whether through drink or even a nostalgic song, the true person underneath the public pretense comes through. Jaehak may maintain pretensions of being an honest free spirit rather than someone trapped by a need to be socially respectable. Yet Sunhi hamstrings him by displaying more of a free spirit than he does. The main characters’ pretensions to intellectual acuity gets pricked in the viewers’ eyes by their inadvertently playing a drunken version of Telephone spinning off of Sunhi’s banal advice about finding out who you are.

The film’s title, “Our Sunhi,” offers an ironic commentary on the belief that love is possession. Rather than being solely possessed by any of the three main male characters, Sunhi is emotional communal property. They may each have personal relationships with the young woman, such as older man/younger woman. Yet none of them possesses all of Sunhi’s heart. Munsu may be a peer and inspired by the ex-film student, but Sunhi feels he’s less than emotionally honest or even insightful.

Then again, Sunhi herself is far from self-confident. Her reactions to Professor Choi’s evaluations of her strengths suggest either cluelessness regarding a joke or certainty that Choi’s referring to someone else with her name.

“Our Sunhi”’s comic structure will confound those who prefer a high degree of blatancy in their comic absurdity. Hong prefers finding the humorous in the apparently mundane, such as high praise that sounds like flattery directed towards a sexual outcome. For viewers who recognize that the human animal can be absurd without resort to artificiality, Hong’s film will be a delight.


A field naturalist’s mindset offers the best approach to appreciate the pleasures of Corneliu Porumboiu’s newest film “When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism.” Patient observation will be rewarded by seeing leads (definitely unfaithful) film director Paul and actress/lover Alina shed their emotional armor and reveal honest glimpses of their inner selves. That patience is necessary as the main plot concerns the director’s efforts to prepare his actress to do a nude scene. Fortunately, such waits are made bearable by Paul and Alina’s conversations on subjects ranging from how film reel lengths affect filmmaking to chopsticks’ influence on Chinese cuisine.


Those who prefer their cinematic experiences heavy on the testosterone with steroid cream topping would certainly be piqued by Alan Yuen’s police actioner “Firestorm.” Explosions routinely kick out doors and flip cars with the alacrity of a pizza chef tossing dough into the air. The number of bullets that fly throughout the course of the film’s running time would spur instant sexual excitement in your typical NRA fanatic. On the other hand, the film’s Hong Kong setting with all Chinese actors and spoken Cantonese and Mandarin would spur quite a few American movie viewers to hope Hollywood remakes Yuen’s first action film.

Yuen’s prior cinematic work had mainly been focused on screenwriting. Writing and directing “Firestorm” could be seen as an answer to his turning 40. Getting Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau to co-produce and star in the film certainly counts as a coup. Yet the film itself winds up being tonally uneven.

Police Inspector Lui (Lau) has repeatedly failed to stop a sophisticated gang of armored car thieves who’ve continually evaded police capture. Ex-convict Cao Nam (Hu Jun) is suspected of master-minding the robberies and murders. But insufficient evidence has kept him out of jail.

Fate brings together Lui with old high school nemesis Tao Sing Bong (Lam Ka Tung). Tao may be an ex-convict trying to go straight. But the police inspector suspects his former classmate may be connected to Cao’s gang. Lui’s suspicion, though, may be influenced by his not forgiving Tao for the latter’s defeating him in a high school judo match.

Despite this dramatic setup, Yuen doesn’t manage to make either the Lui-Tao or Lui-Cao conflicts fully mesh well with the battles with the robbery gang. Good drama in action films provides a reason for the audience to care about a character’s fate when the fists fly or the shooting starts. A character’s fate needs to be risked on more than successful performance of his job. Lui’s professional frustration and Tao’s criminal temptation may hint at what those risks may be. But only Tao’s relationship with his girlfriend Bing offers a semi-passable stab at generating human drama. Lui’s ultimate personal problem doesn’t provide sufficient dramatic tension.

Fortunately, as mentioned above, the action setpieces compensate by delivering astounding amounts of carnage. Lau’s character gets caught in so many explosions that he needs two extra pairs of eardrums. The gunfights are miniature wars pitting superior firepower against sheer force of numbers. Particular props should be given to the Central District car chase/urban gun battle climax. Though normal Central District traffic conditions required this finale to be shot over several early morning Sundays, the seamless results still manage to thrill the viewer.

“Firestorm” will make viewers glad they’re experiencing its fury in the safety of a movie theater.

(“When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism” is currently being considered for commercial release.)

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