Actresses Kim Young-ae, left, and Choi Kang-hee in a scene from "Aeja"
By Lee Hyo-won
As the last bits of summer linger, "Aeja" by newcomer director Jeong Gi-hun heads the pack of mellow autumn season melodramas. It's a coming-of-age story about a troublemaker learning life lessons when her mother falls victim to cancer, but the character-propelled film downplays the predictability as a pair of talented leading ladies hotwire the heart of the script and offer some genuinely affecting moments.
Choi Kang-hee ("My Scary Girl") brings to the screen another atypical heroine, the tomboy Aeja. Her outmoded name, which undoubtedly invited much teasing at school when she was young, sums up the small battles she must fight in everyday life. The movie begins with the baby-faced actress posing most naturally as a rebellious high school student.
An epitome of paradox, she is the best and the worst of students ― though always ranking on top, the dreamy poet constantly walks into trouble as she gets caught smoking, cuts class on rainy days to write prose by the beach and makes midnight phone calls to her teacher after indulging in underage drinking. The only person who can restrain this untamed "Tolstoy of Busan" is her charismatic mother, Yeong-heui, played by veteran actress Kim Yeong-ae.
The two sharp-tongued Busan women are constantly gnawing at each other, with Aeja complaining of her mother's biased affections for her older brother who gets to study abroad.
Ten years later, Aeja, 29, is settled in Seoul but is still wrestling with words as a penniless aspiring novelist and getting into trouble. All she has is an unimpressive resume adorned by an insignificant literary prize, a cheating boyfriend and petty arguments with her arch-nemesis mother.
Aeja is beckoned back home for her brother's wedding. But the family event is far from being warm and cuddly. Always feeling like the ugly duckling, Aeja cries "it's unfair" when mom sells real estate to finance her "spoiled" brother's company while she nags her about getting a real job.
Just when Aeja gets her sweet revenge by virtually ruining the ceremony with a crude joke, though, Yeong-heui collapses. But the film refrains from taking a sappy melodramatic turn. Aeja does not mature overnight just because her mom has cancer; the idea of her feisty mother dying eludes her and she rather reluctantly becomes her caretaker.
The two are biting and barking at each other as always, though this time small fights involve using needles and painkillers properly. However, time and circumstances have inevitably changed, and Aeja finds herself becoming the nagger rather than the nagged.
There have been hyper-realistic dramas about love-hate mother-and-daughter relationships such as "Mayonnaise," starring "Mother" heroine Kim Hye-ja opposite the late Choi Jin-sil. "Aeja" continues the tradition of offering vivid characters and subtle nuances and dynamics of relationships.
The film keeps things somewhat lighter with playful theatrical interventions, but the movie is, of course, aimed at tugging the viewer's heartstrings. The use of sappy violin music is cliche, but Kang and Kim offer the finest tearjerker performances and the camera keeps a surprisingly cool distance from the sentimentality, allowing the viewer to overlook the artifice.
In theaters Sept. 10. 15 and over. 110 minutes. Distributed by Cinergy.