Chinese title: 晚秋
Languages: English, Korean, Chinese
Director: Kim Tae-yong
Screenplay: Kim Tae-yong, Kim Ji-Hyeon
Cinematography: Kim Woo-hyung
Cast: Hyun Bin, Tang Wei
Runtime: 115 min
Trailer: Trailer 1 and Trailer 2
Additional videos: On asianmediawiki (includes a Making of, Character Trailer and Music Video, among other things)
Late Autumn was a late addition to the London Korean Film Festival, but sold out quickly. I was lucky to get a ticket, which I booked because I had previously seen and enjoyed two productions by Kim Tae-yong (including a Q&A with the man himself, in which he came across as rather sympathetic).
A remake of Lee Man-hui’s 1966 film of the same title (other adaptations: Kim Ki-young’s 1975 육체의 약속/Yukche-ui yaksok/Promise of the Flesh and Kim Soo-yong’s 1981 version), Late Autumn opens with a dishevelled woman stumbling down a nearly empty residential street somewhere in suburban America, clearly disoriented and at a loss of what to do. She soon returns to a house, where the listless body of a man is seen on the floor. As the woman starts to destroy photographs and other items, we hear the sound of a police siren echoing through the neighbourhood. The film then switches to the next scene, jumping seven years forward in time.
There are a number of things that are immediately striking about this opening. No discernible words – or even sounds – are uttered by the character, who remains taciturn throughout much of the film. This is a suppressed woman, who does not use her voice – not to express her feelings, not to ask for help, and, possibly, not even to defend herself against accusations of murder. Because this much we know: scene 2 sees the woman, Anna Chen (Tang Wei) by name, in prison for the murder of her husband. But, and this is the second striking feature of the opening frames, there is plenty of ambiguity present: having witnessed neither the actual crime nor the moments that precede it (in fact, we are offered just about no explanation or background on the situation), we cannot be sure of anything. Although it is clear that the system has convicted Anna, viewers themselves, right from the very beginning, are given the opportunity to question whether she is really guilty of a terrible crime or whether she, perhaps, acted purely in self-defence.
This silent, suffering Anna is granted a temporary leave so that she may attend her mother’s funeral. As she makes her way to Seattle, she enters a world that is grey and autumnal (the primary visual tones of the film). Her journey first takes her through a vast, empty landscape, a stark contrast to the enclosed space Anna has been living in. It is a landscape that promises absolute freedom, but at the same time hints at the isolation and remoteness that Anna experiences in the outside world she is no longer part of. This distance between Anna and the ‘outside’ is something we see again and again in Late Autumn: Her family, after an initial, boisterous greeting, suddenly does not know what to do with her, running off to do the cooking or check on the children that were just in the room with them. Feeling out of place, Anna escapes the house and goes off into the city to play dress-up, forcefully repiercing her ears and putting on the brightest red lipstick there is (a symbolic contrast to greyish tones of film). She knows, however, that it is all pretend, all a game, and soon discards the newly bought clothes and accessories in a public toilet. The distance between Anna’s reality and the ‘outside’ is also often expressed through even subtler means: her silences, certain gestures she makes as well as her facial expressions (or lack thereof) all point to it, for example, when she cherishes the sunlight on her face rather than eating the food she has been served in a restaurant.
On her way to Seattle Anna is approached by Hoon (Hyun Bin), a young, handsome, if overstyled, gigolo on the run from the husband of one of his wealthy clients. He is carefree and seems oblivious that the possibility of someone being able to resist his charm even exists. Although Anna does lend him money for the bus fare, she has absolutely no interest in continuing their conversation or being repaid, throwing away his phone number at the first chance she gets. Yet Anna and Hoon’s paths cross again and they spend several days together, slowly finding a connection between them. It is not a utopian, passionate love story that plays out on the screen, but rather a slow realisation that there is something between them, something that neither was looking for yet is unable to deny. As much as Anna rejects Hoon’s approaches, his unconcerned playfulness and lack of judgement of her – unlike her family and so-called friends – allow her to open up and free herself in a way she has not done before. Similarly, although Anna has no money or status to offer him, Hoon finds himself drawn to her.
While Late Autumn is essentially a serious film – loneliness and isolation being central themes -, it is not dark and depressing. It provides, often as a result of Hoon’s carefreeness and his willingness to play games (“Why not?” as he says when challenged on this), surprisingly many funny moments.
Another interesting aspect of the film is its multilingualism. Unlike the original Late Autumn, which took place in Korea, Kim Tae-yong set the story in the US and cast leads of different nationalities. As a result much of the film’s dialogue is in English, although we do also get scenes in Korean (mainly Hoon conversing on the phone) and Mandarin (including a highly poignant moment involving Anna finally revealing her side of the story). Multilingual films are not uncommon in Asia but seem to be a generally accepted subgenre that even mainstream audiences are happy to engage with – including when the actors’ language skills (especially for English) are lacking. Other multilingual films that come to mind include Beck (two Japanese-born siblings converse in English), 노리코, 서울에 가다/Noriko, Seowoole Gada/Noriko Goes to Seoul (set in Korea, but one of the leads is Japanese), 호우시절/Howoosijeol/Season of Good Rain (like in Late Autumn, the only language that the Korean and Chinese leads share is English) and the earlier episodes of the Taiwanese drama 陽光天使 (阳光天使)/Yang Guang Tian Shi/Sunshine Angel (the main female character speaks Japanese).
It is always immensely difficult to provide an ending for a film like Late Autumn, because all the endings that are possible can only be problematic. A Hollywoodesque conclusion would be ruinous, a doomed-love finish frustrating and also a cop-out, leaving only the ‘open ending’ solution – but even that one is tricky with this kind of film. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that Late Autumn ended in a satisfying enough manner as it plays with some of the film’s earlier and slightly more unconventional moments.
On the whole then, Late Autumn is a wonderfully made film. It is already noticeably more polished than 가족의 탄생 (Gajokeui tansaeng/Family Ties), evidencing Kim Tae-yong’s growth as a director and scriptwriter, and although its story is not so original that it will stay with you forever and ever, it is without doubt a film I highly recommend. The cast is excellent and, given the care that Kim Tae-yong has put into Late Autumn on all levels – plot, characterisation, symbolism, soundtrack, cinematography -, I would say it is even worth watching several times in order to be able absorb all of its nuances.
Postscript: The experience of watching the film also merits commentary. The audience at the screening, I would estimate, was 45% Korean, 45% Chinese (not surprising, given that the two leads were Korean and Chinese respectively), with approximately 80-90% of viewers being female. When Hyun Bin comes out of the shower into the hotel room, with only a towel draped around his hips and showing off impressive abs, a significant part of that audience gave a collective sigh, only to be followed by the laughter of the rest of the audience. Nothing beats eye-candy it seems.