Year: 2011
Country: Korea
Languages: Korean and Japanese
Director: Lee Gyo-Wook
Screenplay: Seo Jung-Min, Ahn Joo-Young
Cast: Takashima Reiko, Lee Hong-Ki, Ikura Manami
Runtime: 91 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled, teaser trailer)
Film’s official website: on KBS (in Korean)

As a KBS2 drama special of average quality, Noriko, Seoul-e Gada is sufficiently entertaining for a lazy Friday evening in, but, unlike the recently reviewed Heaven’s Postman, which at least could lay claim on wonderful cinematography, does not stand out in any particular way.

The story focuses on a middle-aged Japanese woman, the Noriko of the title (played by veteran actress Takashima Reiko), who has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and whose relationship with her teenage daughter Miyuki (Ikura Manami) is becoming increasingly distant. In an effort to convince her loved ones that one should aim for one’s dreams, Noriko decides to participate in a singing contest judged by Kim Hyun Jae, a Korean Hallyu star whom she idolises, and takes off to Seoul for a few weeks. There, she meets another contestant, Kim Min-ha (Lee Hong-ki of the K-pop band F.T. Island), who could easily be her son and who is participating in the reality show for a completely different reason: he truly yearns to become a singer.

This basic storyline isn’t entirely without potential, but there is nothing in it that grabs one right from the start – it is a story like many others (even if most people don’t travel to another country to prove themselves), a story that – in my view – can become captivating only if it delves deeply into the emotions of its protagonists and explores their psychological journey from beginning to end. Such a thing is of course nearly impossible in a timeframe of 91 minutes and fails to realise here, perhaps an argument that Noriko, Seoul-e Gada, with the addition of secondary storylines of other characters, might have made a better drama than film.

But back to the story that does play out on the screen: Min-ha, we learn, has participated in plenty of auditions, but has always failed them, although not for lack of talent. This is also what happens here, the show organisers finding more entertainment value in the middle-aged Japanese ajumma that cannot hold a tune than in the earnest youth for whom music is life. Because Noriko is no less sincere and aware of her limitations, she hires the initially reluctant Min-ha as her singing coach. She also somehow ends up living at his house. The gust of fresh air that she brings into Min-ha’s and his family’s life, whether by forcing the no-good, unemployed uncle out of bed, soju-drinking with grandma or defending the boy like a lioness her cub, is heartwarming, and family ties are cultivated unexpectedly – for the parentless Min-ha most of all. [Slight spoiler alert] It is too bad then that the filmmakers ruin Noriko’s departure scene, denying Noriko and Min-ha their goodbye hug, a hug that Min-ha, who has come to see Noriko as his long-lost mother figure by this point, desperately aches for. Fortunately, Lee Hong-ki’s acting is up to scratch and he is able to convey his character’s feelings despite not being allowed to physically (or even verbally) express them. [End spoiler alert] 

Noriko, Seoul-e Gada falls into the category of bilingual films. Although much of the dialogue is in Korean, with Takashima as one of the leads, there are also quite a few scenes in Japanese, including the pivotal moment when Noriko confides in Min-ha about her family’s troubles. The director’s choice to let the protagonist speak in her native tongue feels natural, and works to underline the importance of the scene. Even if Min-ha may not understand a word of what is said, he, along with the viewers (who, admittedly, are helped by the subtitles), realises that this woman isn’t simply a fan-girling housewife, but a strong and selfless individual.

What does Noriko, Seoul-e Gada amount to on the whole? It is difficult to say. The film does not explore emotions enough to provide viewers with a moving character study. Although music is at the centre of the story, there is in fact not that much singing, nor a particularly memorable soundtrack. Some netizens have billed Noriko, Seoul-e Gada as providing a “fresh look at the Hallyu wave in Japan”, but I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to mean. Do we really get that much (any?) insight into the Hallyu Wave, in a new and different manner? There is commentary on the exploits of reality TV, but it’s a single utterance only (“that ajumma will be entertaining”) that no more than hints at the issue.

Noriko, Seoul-e Gada then is a must-see film only for the fangirls of Lee Hong-ki. His Jeremy in 미남이시네요 (Minamyisinyeoyo/You’re Beautiful, 2009 drama) was a more fascinating and endearing character (never mind utterly hilarious), but the acting is fine here as well. With Min-ha being the male protagonist of the film, there is certainly plenty of Lee Hong-ki to enjoy, although fans might want to note that Takashima has more screen time as the story is told from Noriko’s point of view.

Overall verdict: Sufficiently watchable, but nothing particularly noteworthy or memorable.

Rating: 6/10