Country: South Korea
Director: Lim Soon-rye
Screenplay: Lim Soon-rye
Cinematography: Choi Jee-Yul
Cast: Lee Eol, Park Won-sang, Hwang Jung-min, Oh Gwang-rok, Ryoo Seung-bum, Oh Ji-hye, Park Hae-il, Kim Jong-eon, Jeong Dae-yong, Moon Hye-won
Runtime: 109 min
Trailer (in Korean):
Waikiki Beuradeoseu begins, somewhat aimlessly, with a band of musicians, middle-aged and in a sort of midlife crisis. The four members of the Waikiki Brothers play songs they don’t like at events and places (small weddings, third-rate clubs) where they do not wish to be. The gigs are underpaid, barely allowing them to scrape by, and audiences could not care less about the group performing on the stage. It is far from the dream that the (original) Brothers had in mind twenty, thirty years ago when they first screamed their voices hoarse at school assemblies, trying to impress teenage girls. After a typically disillusioning performance, one band member quits, no longer willing to chase the dream that has long lost its sheen, choosing instead the mundane, but stable life as a bus driver from now on. Kang-soo (Hwang Jung-min), the band’s drummer, and Jung-Suk (Park Won-sang), the keyboardist, are upset about this turn of events, Sung-woo (Lee Eol), the lead singer and guitarist, however remains calm. He observes that it has happened before – he is, in fact, the only remaining member of the high school Waikiki boys.
It’s a first glimpse into the different personalities of the characters, but also a hint at the film’s direction and actual focus, which, despite a wider exploration of the dreams and hopes that people lose as they grow older, is on Sung-woo – superbly portrayed by Lee Eol – most of all. This focal point only emerges slowly, for Sung-woo is so quiet and unobtrusive that he easily goes unnoticed, even when he is right at the centre of the stage (or the film itself). While Jung-su shamelessly seduces one woman after another and Kang-soo noisily moans about their terribly bad luck, Sung-woo melts into the background, arranging the next performance and lending an ear to the complaints from all the self-pitying souls around him.
Only when they travel to Sunbao, Sung-woo’s hometown and the birthplace of the Waikiki Brothers, do we learn more about the leader of the band. Present meets past as scenes of more carefree high school days are inserted into the narrative. The current-day Waikiki Brothers perform in the club that gave them their name, a flashback further revealing that they acquired the moniker only when challenged by a much cooler all-female band at their school. In the present day, Sung-woo meets one member of that group, In-hee, once a particularly feisty girl that was his first and brutally unrequited love. There are also reencounters with his former music teacher Byung-joo, whose career has fallen apart due to alcoholism, as well as with ex-bandmates and people Sung-wu went to school with, who all have one thing in common: their lives are unsatisfying and broken, nothing like they imagined in their times of youth. While they bemoan their miserable fates – sometimes over alcohol, sometimes in fist fights – amidst this chaos of self-absorbed sorrow, there is Sung-woo. The Waikiki Brothers are doing worse than ever, earning their keep in shoddy karaoke bars, with Sung-woo, in the lowest of moments, even being forced to perform naked. Despite everything, Sung-woo however quietly plays on: after one gig, In-hee catches him practicing a song he composed himself on the side of the now empty stage. The audience is long gone, the place is being cleaned for the next day, yet Sung-woo strums away. He is the true musician and the one that is still pursuing his dream, with all the sacrifices it involves.
Waikiki Brothers is a gentle film. There is essentially little that happens and what does are things we can all recognise: slices of our all and everyday lives. Director Lim works on subtle, symbolic levels, tiny, seemingly irrelevant moments taking on a meaning at later points of the narrative. When the young Sung-woo’s heart is broken for the first time after his confession to In-hee has been rejected, his father advises him to stop chasing the girl as women never fall for those that pursue them relentlessly but for those that don’t. And so Sung-woo gives up on his love, living his own life calmly until the reencounter with In-hee decades on. The truth in the father’s words shines through then, for it is In-hee, who never had a slightest interest in Sung-woo and instead married her ideal man, that now comes after him – her own dreams for life never having been fulfilled. Lim also weaves in signs of time. The adolescents that were rocking out at the Waikiki club way back are replaced by older couples, dancing impassively to the cheesy, listless and really rather terrible music of the band, reflecting the ephemeral passion of youth, the dreams long lost. The trajectory of time is also conveyed through Gi-tae (Ryoo Seung-Bum), a youngster who begs Sung-woo to teach him so he may become a performer in the future. Representative of the present-day youth, he remains full of energy and even gets his wish to perform by the end of the film. Gi-tae, however, is no musician at heart either, seeking in reality only vapid fame, based on his self-declared handsome looks and flashy personality, something that could also be perceived as an indirect criticism at an increasingly celebrity-focused entertainment industry where idols with the right image count for more than those that can actually sing or act.
The ending of Waikiki Brothers remains indefinite, leaving viewers with questions. Do In-hee and Jung-woo eventually get together? Does the band ever make it? We cannot be certain and while that may seem like a depressing conclusion to a film weighed down by all the lost dreams already, the final message contains hope: for life, in whatever way, goes on.
Overall verdict: Waikiki Brothers is about the dreams of youth that are lost as we grow older. While this reality may seem depressing, as the focus of the film slowly crystallises, we can find a ray of hope embedded in Waikiki Brothers: although the overly idealistic life we might have imagined may never come to be, rather than forever complaining, we can still pursue our dreams and, like Sung-woo, keep playing.
- There are just about no reviews (at least in English) for the film. Thundie over at Thundie’s Prattle has one, full of praise, and thinks that “Koreans will love this movie”. We are in agreement that it’s “about hope, about holding on to the things that matter”. Kim Kyu-hyun also reviews Waikiki Brothers at koreafilm.org, observing that it is “a tough, restrained but ultimately compassionate film that you may wish to revisit many times, to relish its flavor that, like good wine, gets better with repeated viewings”. Film Threat is decidedly more negative and finds it is a “[d]ismally depressing rock-themed drama from Korea” that is “damn boring”, further complaining that the director “forgot cardinal rule of the celluloid universe: people go to the movies to escape the unhappiness of life, not to be reminded of it”. While I understand that this film isn’t for everyone – it’s slow and introspective, not fun-packed and action-filled -, if that’s your cardinal rule for movie-watching, then I think only a fare of Hollywood would do.