Il Mare - Special Edition Review
Depending on your source Il Mare's original Korean title, Si Wall Ae, apparently translates directly as "Love Across Time", and that simple idea is the perfect description of the film. However, the IMDB doesn't list the film under this title so whether it's true or not is another question entirely. Set concurrently in 1998 and 2000, Il Mare tells the story of a love that grows between two people who live in a seaside house two years apart. Communicating, mysteriously, only through letters that appear to be moving between both time periods, Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Jung-Jae play two young single Korean people who have never met yet fall in love.
When leaving her beautiful house, Kim Eun-ju decides to leave a Christmas card for the new owners. However, the card never reaches its intended recipients. Two year's previously the house is occupied by Han Sung-hyun who finds the card in the same mailbox two years before it was sent. Assuming it to be a strange mistake, he sends a reply to that effect. Kim and Han begin to exchange more and more letters through time and over the course of the film their feelings grow until they fall in love.
There is never any attempt to explain how the letters travel through time, and this adds to the mystery of the film. It doesn't matter how it happens; only that it does.
Il Mare thankfully avoids the melodrama that many Korean films seem to fall back on, and this is largely down to the acting of Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Jung-Jae, both of whom put in subtle and understated performances that suit the film's tone and storyline perfectly. The film manages to be both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time and leaves the viewer with the same sorts of feelings as the Korean comedy, My Sassy Girl. The story's pace is very slow and the actual film feels longer than its ninety-minute running time would suggest. Strangely, despite this, Il Mare never outstays it's welcome.
The direction and cinematography of Il Mare are paramount to the film's success. Hyun-seung Lee has created a powerful, compelling film that is as hypnotic as it is engrossing and it was a surprise and a shame to learn that he hasn't been involved in any other films since Il Mare's theatrical release in 2000. Il Mare's cinematographer, Kyung-Pyo Hong, has however been more active and has been involved more recently in some high-profile Korean productions including the excellent Save the Green Planet.
This newest Korean Region 3 release of Il Mare is presented on two dual-layer DVDs. The first contains the film and the second, the extras. The set is packaged in a beautiful cardboard case that seems to magnetically held shut.
Il Mare is a gorgeous film - the cinematography and photography are first rate so there's no denying that it deserves a transfer that shows this off. Unfortunately, whilst this is indeed the best I've seen the film look on DVD, there are still a number of factors that make this release less than satisfactory.
First up, there is a lot of grain evident throughout the film. While the previous non-anamorphic transfer also suffered in this respect, for this special edition release I was hoping for a whole lot more. Secondly and more worryingly is that there is a lot of very noticeable edge enhancement - this has the unfortunate effect of not only creating halos around objects onscreen, but it also amplifies the issues caused by the grain. The colours also often appear a little washed out, although on occasion they are warmer - most of the indoor scenes have a much softer and more natural appearance while the outdoor scenes are the most disappointing.
The screen grab below demonstrates most of the above problems. Clicking on it will open the frame as a full-sized uncompressed JPEG where you'll immediately notice the large amount of grain. You'll also notice (as emphasised in this enlarged shot) the high amount of edge-enhancement. This is clearly most obvious during high-contrast outdoor scenes but does negatively effect the transfer overall.
What the DVD lacks in picture quality it thankfully makes up in the sound department. Whilst not the most active of soundtracks, Il Mare, still creates an atmosphere that you would be hard pressed to get from a lesser effort. We've got Korean language tracks in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS and the usual comments apply - the DTS is a little warmer and more rounded but all in all there's little to choose between them.
The film is all about ambience and therefore it is important that the soundtrack fills its role adequately without overpowering the rest of the presentation and I'm pleased to report that it does.
In terms of subtitles we're in line for another disappointment. The original Korean release featured a very poor set of English subtitles - spelling and grammatical errors were the order of the day and Spectrum haven't taken the opportunity to correct this pretty big fault. It appears that we've got exactly the same set of flawed subtitles present on this release and this is a serious issue. With a film as beautiful and engaging as this, to have to spend time deciphering the on-screen text has the obvious side effect of drawing the viewer out of the film. Very poor.
There is one slight improvement the subtitles can boast over the previous release - their positioning. The improved anamorphic transfer means that the subtitles are positioned correctly this time around.
Due to the requirement of subtitles on a release such as this I have marked down the Sound rating on this review. Had I just been grading the soundtrack it would have been a 9, but coupled with the problems inherent in understanding the film this seems the most appropriate area in which to mark this release down.
None of the extras are subtitles making them pretty inaccessible to anyone other than fluent Korean speakers. The first disc features what appears to be a commentary track but this is mentioned nowhere on the packaging so I have no idea who it involves.
The second disc includes an on-set making-of documentary, 'A Walk with Memories' featurette, some choppy, hissy interviews with the director and the stars so fans of Jun Ji-hyun get the chance to see more footage of their favourite Korean actress, 'A Work in the Dark Room' featurette which seems to focus on the editing process and finally a selection of storyboards and a photo gallery - both of which are more accessible to a western audience.
Il Mare was both my introduction to Korean cinema as well as Region 3 DVD with its original release - and it's still one of my favourite Korean films. It has been very poorly served in terms of DVD releases in the past and while this release goes some way to addressing that issue, at the same time there are some fundamental flaws that make it hard to recommend this as a package. The picture isn't as perfect as it should be and the subtitles being a major sticking point means that this special edition is far from the release it should have been.
However, it IS a beautiful and moving film that as yet hasn't received anywhere near the recognition that it deserves in the West. In terms of DVD packages, this is probably still the best option but the good points are seriously undermined by the bad.