It's a given that the latest Hur Jin-ho film is going to be a bit of a romantic slow-burner, tracing the delicate path of attraction and flirtation and connecting it to the variable weather of the seasons (Christmas in August, April Snow). It's almost inevitable that this seasonal disruption is also going to signal a darker side to the tender relationships just recently established, with sickness, death, infidelity or simple incompatibility leading to trouble and break-up. You could call the films of Hur Jin-ho bittersweet, but the bitterness usually has a bit of a kick to it. With a title like "A Good Rain Knows", you can be sure that Hur Jin-ho's latest film follows the now familiar template.
The delicate relationship in its tentative first flower of spring is one that has been rekindled when Korean businessman Park Dong-ha arrives in Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China and re-encounters an old-flame, May, a Chinese girl who he once studied with in college, now working as a tour guide at a park dedicated to the poet Da-Fu while she works on a thesis for college. They both have different memories of just how close they used to be, Dong-ha believing that they were practically girlfriend and boyfriend, May denying that they even kissed. Nonetheless, Dong-ha is attracted to May, and there are signs in the affectionate friendship that develops that they may be able to restart a relationship that has been divided by time and distance.
This is all handled by the director with customary delicacy and a lyrical attention to the detail of attraction and romance. The seasons are of course evoked in it being spring when May and Dong-ha meet, the rain playing an important part in bringing them together and holding them slightly apart, the pleasure of anticipation and timing noted in references to Da-Fu's poem that "a good rain knows when to come". The sense of rebuilding is there also in Dong-ha's work, his company sending him over to sort out arrangements for the reconstruction work after the devastating Sichuan earthquake the previous year. Hur also uses the image of a bicycle to good effect, as a metaphor for relationships, learning to fall in love again being like learning to ride a bike again.
However cleverly evoked – the gentle music, the gazing thoughtfully into the distance, the walks in the park and to the zoo to see the pandas (terrific panda footage though) – all this is rather insipid stuff that brings to mind the director's airbrushed efforts in the earlier April Snow, with the two leads rather blandly perfect and not assisted in achieving any greater emotional depth here on account of them having to communicate in faltering broken English. What of course keeps the viewer interested – if they are familiar with Hur Jin-ho – is anticipating when the director is going to drop the bombshell that shatters this cozy little arrangement. And inevitably, it comes with a bang...
Such is the reliability (and slight predictability) of the element of crushing tragedy eventually arriving in a Hur Jin-ho film, that one is inclined to think there is something either of parody or even sadism about it all, that the director is enjoying the slow build-up, before delighting in sadistically sticking the knife in. This isn't the case however. What Hur is interested in is exploring the boundaries of love and romance. As the otherwise comedic element of Mr Nam observes to the naïve Dong-ho, "love does have borders" and Hur explores these limiting factors on idealistic love, the boundaries where it fails, crashes and burns. Rather than being destructive then, it's these boundaries that define love and give it meaning, where otherwise it would indeed be bland and insipid.
This is all very well. A Good Rain Knows is beautifully filmed (if a little too clean and bright), played out with sensitivity and no small amount of irony and humour – a fine example of the director's work on this theme that will intrigue any viewer unfamiliar with his earlier films. For anyone else who has seen Christmas in August, One Fine Spring Day and in his last film Happiness (oh, the loaded irony in all those titles!) you will unfortunately have seen it all done before much better and with a great deal more bite than this.
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