The beginning of Late Autumn, directed by Kim Tae-yong, is sleek, stylish and attention-grabbing. Clear wide-angle photography and quietude of pace make the loneliness and isolation of main protagonist Anna (Tang Wei) almost palpable as she travels alone through the Pacific Northwest of the United States. But somewhere along the way, about the middle for me, Late Autumn loses itself completely. Its creeping pace becomes tedious, and the director Kim seems so focused on continuity of style that he forgets real storytelling and plot. Its trilingual dialog (English, Chinese, and Korean) is ambitious, but artificial; the English dialog having the quality of being written by someone whose first language is not English. And most frustrating of all, the film seems to have no idea when, or how, to end itself.
This is actually the second remake of Late Autumn, the original made in 1966 and first remake in 1982, all three Korean productions. It is a tragedy by nature, about two very different outsiders, who meet and work out the semblance of some companionship. The central figure is Anna, a young Chinese American living in San Francisco, who has killed her abusive husband in a fit of passion, and is now serving an extended prison sentence for her deed. Upon her mother’s death seven years later, she is granted a 72 hour hiatus from jail to attend the funeral in Seattle. Heading north alone by bus, she meets a cocky young Korean, Hoon (Hyun Bin), who wiggles and inches his way into the company of the cold and repellant Anna. It turns out that Hoon is a gigolo who makes his living pleasing older, affluent Korean women, and has his own issues haunting him connected to his dubious profession. Hoon appoints himself to be Anna’s companion for her long weekend on the outside, as she must face her emotionally distant family and the man from her past that she truly loved and whom may be responsible for the turmoil between her and her late husband.
Some central concerns of mine focus on the relationship between Anna and Hoon, the core of the film. Anna seems incapable of snapping out of her gloomy daze, despite the relentless efforts of Hoon to break through. Perhaps a ladies man like Hoon would see cracking her despondent disposition a challenge, but I doubt a real gigolo like Hoon would give a woman like Anna the time of day after their first encounter (in which he needs to borrow money from her for his bus ticket), unless she were willing to be a paying costumer. There is utterly no chemistry between the two, and their romance to me is inconceivable, despite what might be seen as Anna’s desperation for male attention after being in prison for seven years. (Early in the film, the two attempt an awkward love scene at Anna’s request, also unbelievable that her character would stoop to such a thing.)
Furthermore, while Anna is clearly a tragic figure, I would feel more sympathy for her if she felt anything other than self-pity for herself, rejecting those around her and preferring to wallow in despair. Only in one scene towards the end, during the funeral reception dinner at her late mother’s Chinese restaurant, does Anna break out of her stoic veneer and express some powerful emotion, finally commanding more sympathy from her on looking family, as well as the audience. Otherwise, she remains static in despair and never really makes the transformation Hoon or audiences will be waiting for.
If the film does have a transformation point or climax, it is when Anna and Hoon finally engage in an epic, three minute long kiss. The kiss comes at a foggy highway rest-stop on their way back to California, after Hoon is suddenly accosted by a tough American Mafioso who is married to one of Hoon’s clients, and comes to exact retribution (although the bad guy looks more like he’s headed to dinner at a fancy country club than threatening). Hoon realizes this is his last chance with Anna, and expresses himself accordingly. Again, I would be happy to applaud such expression of passion if I felt it viscerally between the two characters, but I never could. And though it is filmed with sensitivity and beauty, it hardly feels triumphant or like the culmination of a passion that has been brewing between the two.
They say give credit where credit is due, and in Late Autumn, Kim Tae-yong has done some solid, artful photography, and has a unique pace of telling his story that I want to like. The film’s scenes of Seattle even serve as a lovely homage to the city. But his artistry is too much, at times becoming like misplaced avant garde, and it cannot maintain viewer attention or convey his message clearly. In the end, you may feel something for the tragic companions who find one another in a lonely world, but you’ll probably be too exhausted by the aimlessness of the lingering plot to care, and just be glad it’s over.