Just so you know, this film is not 174 minutes long, like it says on the DVD packaging (and HKFlix’ details page). In fact, it only runs 105 minutes, well shy of being a 3 hour epic. However, after watching the film, I sort of found myself wishing it had been 174 minutes long. Not because I’m a huge fan of 3 hour epics, or a tremendously huge fan of sappy Korean melodrama (something this movie has in spades), but because I found myself thinking that, with a longer running time, perhaps something more substantial might have taken place.
Right from the start, the film’s premise is ripe for that sappy melodrama I mentioned earlier. In a remote country town, Seung-Jae and So-Hee have been best friends, ever since So-Hee’s father died when she was a little girl. Believing that her father is waiting for her on Mars, So-hee writes him constantly. Feeling sorry for her, Seung-Jae convinces the local mailman to give him all of So-Hee’s letters so that he write back, pretending to be her dad.
While at first it seems like a cruel joke, it becomes obvious that Seung-Jae has a bit of a crush, always taking care of So-Hee and defending her. But when So-Hee’s grandmother gets too old to take care of her, her aunt comes and takes her off to the big city, leaving Seung-Jae to pine away for her.
Jump forward 20 years or so, and Seung-Jae has been unable to forget So-Hee. In fact, he now even pretends to be So-Hee and writes letters to her elderly grandmother so she won’t worry. Suddenly, So-Hee returns to the village unexpectedly, trying to escape from her aunt, who has squandered all of the money her father set aside for her education. Of course, Seung-Jae, being the honest, earnest bumpkin, hopes that she’ll stay for good, completely oblivious to the local pharmacist that has fallen for him.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone will be staying in the village for long; a government dam project is about the flood the village, forcing everyone to relocate. Unable to realize this fact, or perhaps unwilling to, Seung-Jae persists in trying to win So-Hee’s heart. So-Hee, while flattered by Seung-Jae’s interest, and perhaps enamored a bit herself with his “nice guy”-ness, still hopes to make it in the big city and prove her worth. Once again, she leaves Seung-Jae, who is now unable to ignore the village’s plight.
As I’ve mentioned before in other reviews, noone does drama like the South Koreans, and oftentimes, the more melodramatic and overwrought it is, the better. However, A Man Who Went To Mars is unlikely to bring forth any tears, unless they result from giggling at just how overwrought the film becomes. To its credit, the film does have its moving moments. The childhood scenes at the start of the movie are genuinely cute, and one can’t help but feel a bit of a twinge for Seung-Jae’s unrequited love. However, it never really sinks below the level of mere fluff.
Everytime something comes along that might interject some real drama and depth—be it the love triangle between Seung-Jae, So-Hee, and the local pharmacist, the village’s impending doom, or the instability in Seung-Jae’s family (his father is an invalid, and his brother is the town troublemaker)—the film conveniently sidesteps it, or even better, gives us yet another long montage of one or both of the film’s leads staring pensively off into the distance while a treacly piano melody tinkles away in the background. As such, it’s completely inoffensive, wholesome stuff—but it’s never gripping or believable. There are moments when it comes close.
For example, when Seung-Jae visits So-Hee in the city, he discovers that So-Hee is now engaged and views him as an embarassing bumpkin. But once again, we just get another hearttugging montage, just like the 50 others that have come before it.
The main reason I even looked at this film was because of Shin Ha-Gyun, who plays Seung-Jae. Shin is probably my fave Korean actor right now, having been brilliant in such unconventional and challenging films as Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Save The Green Planet. However, the same earnest, boyish looks that serve him so well in those movies, lending a certain innocence to the unstable characters he plays, serves him equally well in this movie, if not moreso. In fact, despite the film’s dramatic shortcomings, it’s next to impossible to not feel some empathy for Seung-Jae, thanks to Shin’s performance as the good-natured to a fault Seung-Jae. But at the same time, he’s so cherubic and wholesome that it adds to the movie’s fakeness.
The rest of the case performs adequately well. Kim Hee-Sun, who plays So-Hee, looks gorgeous and it’s easy to see why Seung-Jae would be obsessed with her. The ensemble cast behind the village also adds some color to the proceedings, such as the guys who try to give Seung-Jae love advice and the aforementioned pharmacist, but they’re muted and in the background more often than not. I would’ve liked to see more of Seung-Jae’s interaction with the village, since he was the mailman, but I guess the director felt we needed more shots of him pining away for So-Hee.
The director, Kim Jeong-Kwon, previously directed Ditto, and so A Man Who Went To Mars wasn’t that big of a stretch. In fact, as I reflect on the two movies, much of A Man Who Went To Mars seems lifted directly from Ditto. As such, I hope that with his next film, he moves a bit outside his comfort zone. It’s obvious that he’s comfortable making high-gloss romances. But in the case of A Man Who Went To Mars, he might be just a bit too comfortable, not willing to do anything too challenging or unexpected.
The result is a film that is very safe and very beautiful to look at (once again, South Korea proves to be the place for good-looking, ultra-glossy film), but almost completely bereft of depth and real substance.