Sangwon (Lee Ki-woo) runs into an old, never-was flame, Yongsil (Jinwon Uhm). The two shared an unconsummated flirtation, as his voice-over explains, "She was going out with one of my friends so I gave her up." They meet for drinks later on in the evening, which leads to an aborted attempt at sex (his fault), and their pillow-talk actually results in the two deciding to commit suicide together.
In the interest of spoilers, I'll move on to reveal that midway through the film we find out that the first half of the movie was a short film being viewed by Tongsu (Kim Sang-Kyum). It seems the film was by an old college roommate who has taken ill. A group of college acquaintances has agreed to gather later in the night to discuss helping with the hospital funds, and Tongsu is very much the oddball of the group. He only attends because he runs into the actress Younsil (she used her real name in the film) who he feels a strange connection to because the film was actually taken from his life.
What results is a night oddly resonant and serendipitous of the first half, the directors film which he based on Tongsu. Life and cinema merge, one imitating the other and vice versa, the film becoming a reflection of how art effects life, thoughts on mortality, and relationships.
Director Hong Sang-soo is one of Korea's rising art leaning, festival friendly exports; his previous film Woman is the Future of Man as well A Tale of the Cinema made the rounds at Cannes. Although he is apparently reticent to give many interviews, the film teacher/director has a reputation for being a control freak. In terms of his style, he seems to be concerned with stripping a film down to its most basic elements- character driven stories with lots of dialogue scenes, and he favors long takes and simple, single camera set-ups, much like Tsai Min-liang or early Jim Jarmusch.
I've only seen Woman is the Future of Man to judge this film against, but Hong Sang-soo chose to mix-up his more static/simple camera set-up with this film. Now, he still mainly uses master shots (He must not teach at a commercial film school because, despite the praise art film directors get for using them, the number one film school rule is to not rely solely on master shots) but there is a little added use of the zoom. So, in a Tale of the Cinema, often a shot will start at a distance, only to have it zoom in to, say, a mid range close-up. And, I don't mean a smooth zoom either. It is pretty obvious and becomes kinda' laughable because he keeps returning to it for some strange reason. It seems like he is making some kind of reflexive comment, reminding you you are in the midst of a tale of cinema.
Getting to the basics, though, the film is an interesting look at art stealing and imitating life, and in turn, that same life attempting to imitate art, but with very different results. I'm not quite won over by the directors technique, especially those zooms. While they served a purpose, by films end the excessive use had me giggling. The actors, mostly, do a good job with their characters, the only exception being Kim Sang-kyum who stumbles a bit with a dense, confused figure. But, it was interesting how you relate his character with the one in the film, filling in the gaps of what was probalby actually based on him and not. Again, this just speaks to the power of A Tale of Cinema and the way in which it makes you reevalute the movie within a movie.
The DVD: Wong Soo DVD, Korean, Region 3 encoded.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The film (both parts) is set in the dead of winter, perhaps to reflect the chilly environment of the characters. Regardless, the image has a very cold feel, keeping to muted hues and neutral color schemes. The transfer seems a bit soft. Contrast appears spot on. Grian level is fairly high, but again, seems to be more of a stylistic choice for the atmosphere. The print does have a few specks and spots that, while they are not present to an annoying degree, shouldn't be on a transfer of a film so recent. Technically there is some slight evidence of motion blur, but it was so minimal I only caught it on a big screen tv.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround, Korean language, with optional English and Korean subtitles. Well, it is a very dialogue driven film with a handful of instances of scoring. Basic, but the presentation in good. The subtitles were rendered legibly and appeared to be well translated.
Extras: Packed in a nice, heavy paper stock slipcase.— Trailer— Actor Interviews: Jinwon Uhm (11:34), Lee Ki-woo (7:05), and Kim Sang-Kyum (14:10). Unfortunately in Korean language only, no English subtitles.— Commentary by Korean film critics (Jeong Seong-il and Heo Moon-Yeong?). Again, Korean language only, no English subtitles.
Conclusion: Tale of the Cinema is a film that I didn't particularly enjoy at first, but when it made the story shift at the midway point, it reveals details and an intent that makes one reassess the entire work. By the end, I was involved, though I think the technique could use some smoothing out. The DVD presentation is okay, the design of the packaging is actually niftier than the transfer and the extras are not English friendly. I don't think importers should be in any rush to purchase the film. Instead, certainly seek it out for a rental.