By Yang Sung-jin
Lee Kyung-kyu, a leading television personality, has an old score to settle for the silver screen. Back in 1992, he produced and directed an action film titled "A Bloody Battle for Revenge." He even took the title role, a grandiose attempt that drew much media attention.
But the film miserably crumbled at the box office. The real problem, however, was that the public would not forget Lee`s failure, thanks partly to the generous publicity thrown into his boldness. Worse, "A Blood Battle" earned a much-dreaded status - a synonym with a huge box-office flop.
<**1>Lee is now eager to restore his damaged credibility with "Highway Star," a comedy that he has co-produced. It seems that Lee has learned a painful lesson from the past: instead of stepping forward to publicize the film, Lee remains largely out of the spotlight.
Lee has set up In & In Pictures, a movie production company, and persuaded Cha Tae-hyun, one of the Korea-Wave stars, to play a clueless yet talented rock singer who happens to find his true calling in the peculiar genre known as "trot music" that is similar in melody and words to Japanese melodramatic enka songs.
Lee has also stayed out of the filmmaking process - another smart move. He generously lets Kim Sang-chan and Kim Hyeon-soo co-direct the movie that is based on a Japanese novel by Hiroshi Saito.
There is a strange parallel between Lee and Cha. Both of them have built up their fame as comic actors - Lee on television and Cha on the big screen. Both of them are keen to recover their fame with "Highway Star." Cha, in particular, is in a protracted slump, failing to maintain his Asia-wide popularity with his superb role in "My Sassy Girl."
Im Chae-moo, who has been on television dramas for ages, is also following in the footsteps of Lee Kyung-kyu. Im plays a head of a ragtag recording company in "Highway Star," hoping to extend his popularity into the silver screen following the huge success as a comic character for a television ad last year.
The expectations for "Highway Star" are naturally high - a double-edged sword in terms of box-office success. The movie begins with Jang Jun (played by Im Chae-moo) making a trip to a pathetically tacky nightclub in a rural area where Bong Dal-ho (Cha Tae-hyun) is trying out his talent as a rock singer.
Suddenly, Jang spots Dal-ho`s hidden talent - a trot singer who can reflect the melodramatic sentimentality of mostly middle-aged Koreans. Much of comedy involves Dal-ho`s attempt to rediscover his true talent, though he persistently believes that trot music, also known as "bbong jjak," is outdated and trite.
A turning point comes when Dal-ho mysteriously gets a chance to sing a trot music piece on a television show. The key for success is that he plays a mysterious identity game. He puts on a mask and does not reveal his identity to the public, a strategy that pulls off a huge success on the music charts.
Cha Tae-hyun and Im Chae-moo seem to have made some efforts to spark up the flick with their comic character, but the underlying problem is that today`s moviegoers in Korea tend to have a very high standard, and many of them are likely to compare "Highway Star" with Cha`s legendary gig at "My Sassy Girl." In addition, Im`s big screen debut performance will be scrutinized in comparison with his extremely hilarious image for an ice cream ad.
"Highway Star" is absolutely better than "A Bloody Battle for Revenge" (if you haven`t watched it yet, don`t bother). Unfortunately, Lee Kyung-kyu needs more than a predictable, cliche-laden comic flick to settle his old score, much less produce a commercial hit.