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  Publicity Stills of "The Old Garden"
(Courtesy from Festive Films)

In Korean with English and Chinese subtitles
Director: IM Sang-soo
Cast: JI Jin-hee (Jewel in the Palace, Perhaps Love) YUM Jung-ah (Season For Love, A Tale of Two Sisters, H) Eun-Seong
RunTime: 1 hr 52 mins
Released By: Festive Films & Cathay-Keris Films
Rating: TBA
Official Website:

Opening Day: 7 February 2008


Based on the international bestseller by famous writer HWANG Sok-yong, The Old Garden is a heart-wrenching love story set in the 1980s, an intense time of suffering. During the uprising, Hyun-woo escapes to a mountain village, Galmwhe, where he falls in love with Yoon-hee, an art teacher at the village school. The two live together like a dream in a small secluded house but eventually, guilt forces Hyun-woo to return to his felow protestors. He is caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Hyun-woo is released from prison after serving 16 years and 8 months of incarceration. He heads back to Galmwhe to find that Yoon-hee had died and left behind a heart-wrenching secret he never knew..

Movie Review:

So if you've read the synopsis above, then you'll probably know what you're in for. It's almost standard formula for a tragic romance, bringing back to mind that it's better to have love and lost, than not having to love at all.

Writer-director Im Sang-soo is no stranger to stories based upon a historical event. His previous movie, The President's Last Bang (which was show here in the Singapore International Film Festival back in 2006), drew some flak for combining fictional elements against a historical backdrop depicting the last few hours of Korean president Park Chung-hee's life, and that of the perpetrators of the deed. But the film didn't necessitate an audience to be familiar with the historical context in order to enjoy what Im Sang-soo has crafted.

Perhaps it's rather apt that Im had decided for his next movie, to adapt a bestseller by Hwang Sok-yong, in that the socio-political events that provided the backdrop for this story, happens in the aftermath of President Park's assassination. Ji Jin-hee plays Hyun-woo, a political activist with socialist leanings, who in an attempt to escape capture, takes refuge in the countryside, and is harboured by art teacher Yoon-hee (Yum Jung-ah). An attractive couple living in a remote area almost definitely make sparks fly, and soon, a romantic relationship is forged, but not without the usual hiccups that come along the way.

The story unfolds itself in quite an erratic manner, for the first 10 minutes at least. Timelines get juxtaposed and drew too much attention to itself, detaching one from the story for a bit, and the only clue you have is to observe the white strands in Hyun-woo's hair, before better sense prevailed and transitions were done in a more natural manner. I thought the introduction of Hyun-woo's character was a little messy as a result of this, with no clear motivations or inclinations made crystal clear, not until he meets with Yoon-hee.

Even then I was a tad disappointed, though I realize that it was somewhat refreshing in actually limiting the time the duo spend on screen romancing each other (otherwise it'll just go on and on). Their passion's like a naked flame, susceptible to the winds of change, and change did come when Hyun-woo, like any alpha-male type, decides that his beliefs and ideology surpasses that of ordinary romantic relationships, and returns to Seoul, leaving Yoon-hee upset, and heartbroken. A man's gotta go what a man's gotta do, and that sometimes mean personal sacrifices has to be made.

Which by then the narrative shifts viewpoints and tells the story from Yoon-hee's perspective which seemed to become the more interesting amongst the couple, but alas her character too ventures into familiar territory involving illness and all, and gets interspersed with recreating some scenes from the Gwangju Massacre. Perhaps the Gwangju Massacre isn't really something we can relate to in our local and today's context (with mass rallies and violent protests), and I thought personally, it drew a blank. So I'm humbly suggesting it might be useful if a little background on the event might assist in understanding the story in its historical setting better. Incidentally, there's another Korean movie called "May 18" which focuses specifically on the event too.

The Old Garden is lushly filmed, but it somehow sits on the fence with whatever statements it wants to make on the political events in the 80s, and doesn't allow much room for the romance bit to stand out strongly, instead opting to tread on safe themes like longing, loneliness and perhaps past regrets.

Movie Rating:

(Your alternative choice of a romance movie amongst the comedic-alien-basketball-playing-loanshark-gangsters this Lunar New Year.)

Review by Stefan Shih


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