Uhm Jung-hwa in a scene from “Dancing Queen.” A CJ E&M Pictures release, “Dancing Queen” is now showing in theaters.
By Lee Hyo-won
A woman dares lead a double life pulling off Madonna-esque performances onstage when she’s not being the pearl necklaces, white gloves-wearing type avidly supporting her husband’s Seoul mayoral candidacy. While “Dancing Queen” starts off from a ridiculously cheesy premise, director Lee Seok-hoon crafts a surprisingly feel-good movie that hits all the right notes.
The filmmaker tackles the secret life theme with grace and ease after 2007’s disappointing “Two Faces of My Girlfriend,” while the leading cast members’ zestful charm leaps light over the film’s most blatantly formulaic and theatrical moments. But what makes “Queen” successful is that it reveals compelling drama by looking into the meaning of family and scrutinizing biases that mark our society.
The film can and should be appreciated light-heartedly, and the humor- and music-filled entertainment comparable to “200-Pound Beauty” gives viewers a cathartic release. While some of the more culture-coded dialogue and political traditions may be difficult to translate the movie can still eye ancillary success overseas, particularly in neighboring Asian countries where Korean comedies are well received.
The film begins with a charming prelude — akin to Pixar’s “Up” — showing how Jung-min (Hwang Jung-min) and Jung-hwa (Uhm Jung-hwa) meet as schoolchildren. They are destined to run into each other as college students — of Yonsei and Korea Universities, whose rivalry is as legendary as the Harvard-Yale Regatta — only to become accidental heroes of the 1980s student-led democratization movement and fall in love.
The stars seem lined up for a happily-ever-after but this is where the real story begins — the sort that is quite far from fairytales. Years down the road Jung-hwa is a feisty mom with rather unpleasant sleeping habits and disheveled hair. Gone are her days as “the Madonna of Sinchon” (downtown Seoul), when she pulled hip-swinging stunts on club stages donning the latest 80s fashion gear, neon tights, bouncy curls and all. The closest she has come to becoming a singer-dancer, her childhood dream, is teaching aerobics at a local gym.
Jung-min on the other hand retains his cheery disposition and thick Busan accent but has become a listless middle-aged man, trying to make ends meet at his humble human rights law firm. But one day the couple’s lives take an unexpected turn. Jung-min, having become an accidental hero, is cast to become a mayoral candidate by a political party in desperate need of publicity. Jung-hwa on the other hand gets back in touch with an influential agent who had wanted to turn her into a star in her heyday, to become part of a K-pop group — an ambitious project to bring mature, polished talent to counter the influx of teen idol bands.
What makes the film interesting is that it opts to examine the psychology behind the precarious situation, when a couple’s individual interest is at odds with the other. Jung-hwa chooses thus to hide her newfound career from her husband, and the heavy stage makeup and wig help disguise her other identity as the mayor-to-be’s wife. Jung-min on the other hand doesn’t disclose how he was offered the candidacy until the last minute.
As Jung-wha tries to explain the importance of realizing her dreams Jung-min does not initially understand, until she says “Do you want our daughter to give up everything so that she could support her husband? Do you know what she said the other day? She said, ‘I didn’t want mom to become a singer? But look at her now. I don’t want to live like her.’”
“Queen” makes us to ponder whether we really know and appreciate those closest to us, and about how we allow social norms and prejudices to rule our lives. It’s entertainment that provides a little afterthought, a rarity in mainstream cinema these days.