A Millionaire's First Love Review
Kang Jae-kyung (Hyun Bin) is your typical spoilt rich kid; he’s arrogant, drives sporty cars, attends the big clubs, rides through school corridors on his motorcycle and - wait, that’s not typical at all is it? As his 18th birthday approaches he’s set to inherit his grandfather’s fortune, but that comes with a price. Jae-kyung is going to have to earn his fortune. His grandfather lays down an ultimatum; Jae-kyung is required to transfer to a new school in Gangwondo and graduate. Until then all access to his penthouse, cottage and credit cards is denied. Should he fail to graduate or drop out then he loses everything. With little choice he heads out to the countryside and a small town in which daily life is far removed from what he’s used to.
Shortly after settling into his new home he meets 19 year-old Choi Eun-whan (Lee Yeon-hee), who just happened to run into him back in Seoul. They don’t exactly hit it off; he’s far too stubborn and cool for school, while she sees hope for him and sets out to make him see it for himself. As they eventually draw closer, thanks to a set of coincidences and school projects they learn more about one another, but soon a shattering revelation will change these people forever, or something.
I’m not overly familiar with director Kim Tae-gyun’s work, who in ten years has churned out five films, with 2001’s Volcano High earning him his keep. Volcano High showed promise from a certain standpoint; it was a ridiculously fun action film that blended multiple genres fairly well and had many likeable characters. It was still flawed in several areas, notably containing an un-involving storyline that belonged in some low-grade action comic book. But then for all intents a comic book was what Volcano High attempted to emulate. Five years later (man, has it been that long already?) and Tae-gyun shows that he’s not come very far since, with his latest self-penned script. A Millionaire’s Love is so ham-fisted and lazy that the contrasts between it and the director’s previously mentioned film are striking. For someone who had a good shot at redefining the fantasy/action genre in South Korea during the post Matrix boom, it’s somewhat saddening to see him resort to the kind of overly manipulative and predictable dramas that, quite frankly, everyone should probably be sick of by now. A film that distances us from its characters, thanks to half a dozen worn devices and a never-ending stream of tears pouring from the faces of the poor saps in its employment, makes this an altogether numbing experience. Not a place is wants, nor needs to be in.
If any attempt was made to present us with interesting characters then I might be able to forgive some of the film’s other liberties but the fact of the matter is that none of them have any redeeming qualities, despite going through the obvious motions of learning life lessons. Let’s face it, Jae-kyung is an asshat; there is absolutely nothing about him that makes us want to sympathise, empathise or whatever-athise with his life. Does his orphaned state really reflect how his character should be? Not at all. He’s simply an arrogant city boy who starts fights, attempts bribery, harps on about his wads of cash, sleeps around and has no respect for his elders or anyone else around him. Of course that would be the point and naturally he needs something or someone to give him a kick up the arse and make him see the error of his ways. But who honestly cares? Much in the same mould as the likes of My Tutor Friend, only less amusing (and even that film had problems), A Millionaire’s First Love coasts along thinking that it’s perfectly covering all bases and delivering pertinent messages (money can’t buy everything, love is true happiness and that we should appreciate the smaller things in life) but its own lethargic pacing - which realistically could be trimmed to leave us a 90-minute film - and tragically dire characterisation sees to it that viewers will be checking their clocks on more than one occasion. Worse still is Eun-whan, who from the start is trying to earn the affection and change the ways of Jae-kyung, desperately trying everything she can and leaving us to ponder the stupid reason behind it. By the time we’ve seen all the twists and turns, complete with Jae-kyung’s idiotic and contradictory mind games that he plays on poor Eun-whan, not to mention a two hour run time that still manages to gloss over so much of their relationship we loose all interest. I almost failed to mention the stereotyped, country-bumpkin students in Jae-kyung’s class. Ah sod it, I can’t be arsed.
Kim Tae-gyun manages to visually helm his film respectably; he still relies on the classic rainy scene motif that every melodrama has to include, but he does make the most of his surrounds, at times offering some beautiful photography and compositions; it’s not particularly arresting, but it gives us something else to focus on from time to time. The rural side of Korea is something that we don’t all too often see in mainstream cinema and in that respect it feels somewhat fresh. There are however a few cheesy, stock captures, paired with an edacious score designed of course to tug at the heart strings. In fact I challenge the viewer to play a little game when watching. All you have to do is guess the music cue five seconds before it happens. I got a pretty good score of 95% In addition the director does find the time to inject a little humour; again it’s all timed in a perfect manner and relies on the fish out of water scenario. Some scenes work fairly well; I must admit to having a chuckle when I saw a frog almost land on Jae-kyung’s face, while other moments are too bizarre and ill-judged to comment on: a scene involving the school put on a bastardized version of The Sound of Music, while Eun-whan has a coronary, although the humour here is quite unintentional I imagine.
With all that said I can’t fault much else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the acting. Rising star Hyun Bin, who in a few years may be able to double for Lee Byung-hyun if ever he needs a face double for some strange film or maybe one involving a younger, hot-headed brother who needs rescuing from triads vacationing in Seoul, ‘cause his brother once dated a pretty Chinese girl who just happened to be the leaders’ sister, but the leader caught wind of it and a fight ensued, handles his material as best he possibly can. There’s not a great deal to expect from him given his role, which has him act out accordingly in true, by the numbers fashion. Likewise his co-star Lee Yeon-hee, who makes her debut here, just has to know when to turn on the waterworks, and she does so right on cue. While she’s competent in her role and also cute to boot, she’s not an instantly definable actor, having no better qualities than a dozen other young starlets working in South Korea today. Where she goes from here will be interesting. Support wise, we have a reasonably solid cast, even if they have so very little to go on.
enterOne presents this 2-disc edition in a typically standard form. No fancy artwork or boxes this time, but a simple amaray housed in a girly-pink slip cover.
A Millionaire’s First Love is given a pleasant treatment; presented anamorphically in its native 1.85:1 aspect ratio the image displays what we’ve come to expect from Korean cinema on DVD. A little edge enhancement, aliasing and boosted contrasts aside things are generally fine, with nicely rendered colours and solid amounts of detail for close shots.
Korean 5.1 Surround is our main audio choice here and it delivers all it has to rather nicely. On the whole it isn’t particularly outstanding, although one or two moments utilise the rears to good effect, in particular a literally shattering scene as Jae-kyung remembers a moment of his past that he’d tried so hard to forget. Dialogue presents no problems, with good clarity up front.
Optional English subtitles are included, as is per usual, and aside from a couple of missing full stops and the lack of translation for its main love song they read well.
Disc 1 contains an audio commentary with the director and the two main stars, along with a brief feature called “After Commentary”, which consists of interviews and is something that more films on DVD are coming up with these days.
Disc 2 carries all of our other features, which are split across two pages. A ‘making of’ (25.27) feature kick-starts the first page, taking us behind the scenes of production, with cast and crew interviews. We get the usual selection of on-set japery, location shooting and needlessly melodramatic scoring. Run of the mill stuff and spoiler intense, just in case you have some strange desire to watch it first. Next up we have a couple of interviews with crew members (9.56) that I can’t identify, though judging the clips throughout they’re likely camera crew. The Sound of Music is the topic for the next piece (14.07) and this goes behind the scenes of rehearsals, with footage of Lee Yeon-hee singing rather well in English, which we don’t actually get to see in the film. Rights issues I presume? Next is an unbearable seven minutes of Lee Yeon-hee crying in several scenes. Yea she can cry on cue, but we don’t need to see seven minutes worth of close up bawling. Oh and the music (gagging). So we move on to a bit with the main characters frolicking and being in love (8.07) while the main love theme plays over.
Continuing on page two we get an interview with the film’s composer and director (10.49). Next is the obligatory poster campaign shoot (5.23), the theatrical trailer, a lengthy photo gallery and finally a music video.
It’s becoming harder these days to find any sincerity in Korean drama. Give the audience what they want seems to be the current attitude, only do we really want another tale of hardened city boy, turned love inflicted fool as he learns vital moral lessons through trial and error and convenient narrative twists? I’ll let you, the reader, decide. Personally speaking, I feel it’s about time that a little change was called for. If you want to see a truly affecting Korean tragedy then check out the likes of Failan and Christmas in August (and yes, I probably harp on about those too much), or take a look at some of the better executed efforts from the past year such as This Charming Girl and Bewitching Attraction, rather than waste your time on yet another insipid offering that solely relies on recycled material from already worn concepts and fails to provide any kind of identity for itself.