Actors Song Chang-ui, left, and Lee Wan star in ``Once Upon a Time in Seoul.
By Joon Soh
When the Korean War ended in July 1953, South Korea was in a state of chaos. Much of the country, especially Seoul, was in shambles, many of its buildings were destroyed, and law and order had a fragile hold on society.
The film ``Once Upon a Time in Seoul'' (titled ``Boys Don't Cry'' in Korean) is set in this tumultuous period in South Korean history and describes the daily struggle shared by the war's survivors. The story is told through the experience of orphaned children - the most destitute and helpless of Seoul's residents - and their contact with the world of crime as they fight to survive.
According to the film, the black market was one of the few aspects of postwar Seoul that was thriving. Cigarettes, liquor, canned foods and other rare items made their way out of U.S. military bases and into the hands of those who could afford it. (And they continued to do so for many decades afterwards.) This underground market of imported goods was controlled by criminal gangs led by violent and corrupt war veterans.
There's a sense here that we are witnessing the birth of the nation's organized crime world, as the violent urges and codes of conduct that were perhaps needed to fight in the Korean War are redefined and used in the accumulation of personal wealth and power. Through this transformation, familiar archetypes from the gangster film genre, seen and done to death in countless Korean dramas and comedies, take on an added layer of meaning.
Sadly, after working so hard to create such a complex historical setting, ``Once Upon a Time in Seoul'' then proceeds to dilute it with a formulaic storyline and one-dimensional characters. The film revolves around Jong-du (Lee Wan) and Tae-ho (Song Chang-ui), two orphaned friends who become involved in the black market but dream of making enough to one day escape from crime and poverty. Their journey takes them deeper into the world of both gangsters and street children.
This main storyline - of criminals trapped in a cycle of violence and compromise, and their longing to break free - is one of the most overused formulas of gangster films, and aside from its novel historical approach, ``Once Upon a Time'' adds little to the genre. Rather, the pathos evoked by the orphans and their desire for a better future are played up for maximum sentimental effect. And in place of character development, the movie relies on predictable scenes of violence and dramatic plot twists to get its point across.
There are several moments when ``Once Upon a Time'' hints at something deeper, particularly regarding the anger lingering from the Korean War and its tragic effects on postwar Seoul and beyond. Unfortunately, the film chooses to avoid its own painful questions, and opts for pat, melodramatic answers instead.
In theaters. 98 minutes. 15 and over. Distributed by Studio 2.0.