Alternative Title (English): Green Days: Dinosaur and I
Country: South Korea
Directors: Ahn Jae-hoon, Han Hye-jin
Studio: Studio Meditation with Pencil (Studio-MWP)
Screenplay: Song Hye-Jin
Art Direction: Han Hye-jin
Cast: Park Shin-hye, Song Chang-ui, Oh Yeon-so
Runtime: 95 min
Distribution: Meditation with a Pencil
Film’s official website: N/A
When Soljonghang Naluiggoom first premiered in the UK as part of the 2011 London Korean Film Festival it was advertised as a “Korean cousin to Studio Ghibli in style” (quote). With Western audiences knowing virtually nothing about K-animation – including the fact that Korean animators have been involved in many, world-famous projects, from The Simpsons to Family Guy, – the tagline is, from a promotional perspective, understandable, but otherwise unfortunate. Such declarations hinder Korean animation from carving out a path and niche in its own right, and raise expectations, both in terms of content and quality, to a degree that, given Ghibli’s years of experience in the field as well as significantly higher budget and (wo)manpower, is probably not quite fair.
It is a tempting comparison of course, even more so because Soljonghang Naluiggoom’s 2011 release coincided with that of Studio Ghibli’s「コクリコ坂から」(Kokuriko-zaka Kara/From up on Poppy Hill) that year, with which it in fact shares plenty. Both projects were from newish directors – Ahn Jae-Hoon and Han Hye-Jin had previously only directed a handful of animated shorts, Miyazaki Goro was tackling his sophomore work – and featured a coming-of-age story, set in the past (1980s South Korea and 1960s Japan respectively) and told from the point of view of two adolescent girls who fall in love for the first time.
In Soljonghang Naluiggoom the girl in question is Yi-rang (voiced by popular Korean TV actress Park Shin-Hye), who lives a very normal teenage life somewhere in the countryside, struggling with self-perceived inadequacy and the lack of any specific hopes and ambitions for her future. These feelings are heightened by the arrival of Soo-min (Oh Yeon-seo), a beautiful and sophisticated but aloof new student from Seoul, who instantly attracts everyone’s attention with her big-city background and gutsy behaviour (she confidently belts out a song when her classmates pester her for it and refuses to participate in communal cleaning duties). Then there is also Chul-soo (Song Chang-ui), a boy for whom Yi-rang has been harbouring feelings for a while, that she suddenly seems to be running into all the time.
In Yi-rang’s eyes both Soo-min and Chul-soo are completely out of reach for an ordinary person like herself – they are sparkling individuals next to whom she can only be invisible in her normalcy. It comes as a surprise to her then, after various coincidental encounters with each Soo-min and Chul-soo, that neither of them is anything like she imagined. Soo-min may be the envy of all girls and the crush of all boys, but has no interest in any of them. Instead, she likes the literature teacher and writes poetry for him, which, it finally dawns on Yi-rang, is terrible – even if the boys go moon-eyed over Soo-min reciting inane lines. Chul-soo, meanwhile, is a dreamer and a sort of Korean Da Vinci, who without even an inkling of self-consciousness runs around town collecting bits and bobs of trash for his latest experiment, such as the home-made flying machine he crashlands from the school rooftop. Indeed, Chul-soo is a refreshingly idiosyncratic character, who comes with an equally unusual, deaf-mute uncle. However, what puzzles Yi-rang the most is that he takes an interest in her, rather than Soo-min, as she initially suspected. (She is just as much amazed when realising that Soo-min finds Chul-soo rather dull with his incessant talk about space travel.)
As the story tackles Yi-rang’s relationships with both these characters, the filmmakers’ handling of the narrative becomes somewhat uneven, lengthy scenes of dialogue between characters (either Yi-rang and Soo-min, or Yi-rang and Chul-soo, with little to purposefully connect both) stalling most forward movement. They seem uncertain about which relationship to focus on, or how to explore both in a manner that is effective. There is no real conflict, no real development towards a climax. While some films can do without such a traditional story arch, Soljonghang Naluiggoom does suffer a little from the lack of it, because the one thing which holds the film together – the main character – is overshadowed by others, as cocky Soo-min and, in particular, big-dream Chul-soo, or even the silent and somewhat mysterious uncle, are simply much more intriguing than ordinary girl Yi-rang. Yi-rang herself might struggle with her pride over losing a relay race and tiptoe shyly into her first relationship (unrealistically driven by grandiose visions from her favourite film, the tragic-romantic Love Story), but the running plot line is too minor and the boyfriend one primarily interesting because of the other half of the pair.
Animation-wise the film is varied as some scenes feel more smoothly animated than others and character movement can be clunky. Drawn in pencil rather than relying on computer graphics that most animations use nowadays, Soljonghang Naluiggoom tries for tries for some magical visual whimsy à la Ghibli, with some success. Chul-soo’s planetarium (or indeed, much of Chul-soo’s world of inventions) is certainly delightful and the Korean touches – the 삼색의 태극 (Sam-Saegui Taegeuk or tri-coloured swirl), the 떡볶이 (ddeokbokki)-making – are lovely, but quite occasional. The dinosaur vision, though imaginative and colourful, however feels a bit random and certainly is not significant enough to explain the mention in the English subtitle.
Others (see Alternative reviews below) were more somewhat charmed then I, delighted by the feeling of nostalgia invoked. While Soljonghang Naluiggoom certainly does take us back to our green days of youth, it is not distinct enough, narratively, visually or otherwise, to create any new and long-lasting memories.
Overall verdict: Soljonghang Naluiggoom is a coming-of-age story that depicts the everyday struggles of teenagers in a mostly quiet fashion. Characters wrangle with feelings of inadequacy, form new friendships and take first, tentative steps in love – no virgin territory is negotiated here, either narratively or visually. As the film treads into the past of youth that most viewers will be able to relate to, it stirs nostalgia without creating new memories.
- The film directors founded Studio Meditation with a Pencil, which is both a production company and an animation studio. They have a website (Korean) as well as a Facebook page (English), the latter of which seems to have gone quiet since 2011.
- An article on how the film was made over 11 years (!) and how it fared at the Korean box-office.
- Alternative reviews: London Korean Links, Eastern Kicks, Hancinema and Eye for Film.
- The film is available on DVD (Region 3) with English subtitles from Yesasia.com.
- I’m very tempted to write “make new memories”. If you watch a lot of Asian film or read mangas, you will know what I mean.
- Soljonghang Naluiggoom is, in some ways, a quite localised film with visual references to Korea and some popular local songs of the time it is set in, yet accessible for international viewers as well, the animated Love Story sequences and music surely invoking memories for non-Korean viewers born before the eighties.