Watch Sun-heui Become 'Sunny'
By Lee Hyo-won
``Sunny,'' a love story set amid the Vietnam War, epitomizes South Korean director Lee Jun-ik's cinematic endeavors by bringing together the period detail of ``King and the Clown'' (2005) and musical inspirations of ``The Happy Life'' (2007).
This is the country's first movie directly depicting the sweat of some 320,000 Korean soldiers that fought with American forces. At the time, veteran singers like Patty Kim and Hyun Mi, who were pin-up girls back then, traveled to the war-torn land to cheer up soldiers. According to the director, a black and white photograph of a beautiful ``consolatory band'' singer gave birth to the film.
Lee brings a tale that seeps into the heart with the wistful tunes of Kim Chu-ja's ``My Love Is Faraway,'' the Korean title of the movie. The story is basically about an average rural housewife who, with the sole aim of tracking down her husband, becomes a singer. But the film grazes upon a broader sense of love and humanitarian concern as it depicts a long voyage of self-discovery.
It's 1971 Confucian Korea. Actress Su Ae is Sun-heui, a quiet young woman stuck in an arranged marriage with a man who's still in love with his college sweetheart. She has no choice but to submit to her stern mother-in-law's futile campaign for a grandson, and regularly visits her soldier husband Sang-gil (Um Tae-woong). Yet, all he returns is a cold glance and a poignant question: ``Do you even know what love is?''
She is speechless.
One day, Sun-heui discovers that Sang-gil has left for Vietnam. When her distraught mother-in-law packs bags to find the family's sole male heir, Sun-heui decides to make the trip. While civilians are unable to travel to the warstruck country, she finds out that so-called consolatory singers can go. She finally finds a way to make use of her latent vocal talent.
This incredulous turn of events is made possible with another desperate character. Jung-man (Jung Jin-young), a con artist, cannot miss out on the lucrative business, and happily recruits Sun-heui and other band members. Thus our protagonist trades in her outmoded name Sun-heui for Sunny.
But of course, stripping down from floral blouses buttoned all the way to the top and ankle-length skirts into cleavage-bearing mini dresses and risque high heels isn't easy. However, a sense of fortitude grapples our protagonist as she watches innocent civilians, young soldiers and Vietcong perish.
While this type of character development is all rather formulaic to war dramas, the film depicts it with tasteful restraint. Our laconic Sunny says it all with a flicker of pain in her eyes and by crooning lyrics like ``I should have told you I loved you but it's too late.'' A question seems to linger in her mind. ``Do you love me?'' her husband had asked her.
The movie offers a sense of liberation, as Sun-heui truly becomes Sunny, dancing and singing her heart out. Her strength of will boosts the morale of soldiers and transforms shady men like our greasy, velvet bellbottoms-wearing Jung-man, who was keen on exploiting the star singer. The film takes on a dash of ``Saving Private Ryan'' (1998) as Sunny's ``fans'' (high-ranking military men) help search for her missing husband. Will her heart reach his?
``Sunny'' may at first remind you of ``Cold Mountain'' (2003), where a man embarks on a cross-country trek during the American Civil War to find the love of his life. But the movie is more a kindred spirit of ``The Painted Veil'' (2006) ― ``sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people.''
In theaters July 24. 15 and over. 126 minutes. No English subtitles. Distributed by Showbox/Mediaplex.