[Herald Review] A life well-regretted in ‘Will You Be There?’

By Rumy Doo

French novelist Guillaume Musso’s novel turned into stirring film by female director Hong Ji-young

  • Published : Dec 6, 2016 - 16:27
  • Updated : Dec 6, 2016 - 17:09

Going back in time and righting the wrongs in your life -- this fantasy becomes reality in the latest time-travel drama “Will You Be There?” the Korean film rendition of French novelist Guillaume Musso’s 2006 novel by the same title.

Quietly stirring but dynamic in its plot, the film offers an emotional respite amid the political thrillers that crowded Korean cinema this year, according to lead actor Kim Yoon-seok. It also rubs shoulders with “Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned,” another fairy tale-like time-travel flick currently in theaters.

In 2015, scrupulous pediatric surgeon Han Soo-hyun, played by Kim, receives a mysterious vial of gold pills as a gift for fixing a child’s cleft palate while volunteering in a remote African village. Struck with terminal lung cancer, Han longs to see his old lover for the last time -- a wish that is granted when he swallows one of the pills.

The doctor is transported back 30 years to 1985, coming face-to-face with his younger self, played by Byun Yo-han. The young Soo-hyun is a pediatrics resident in love with his dolphin trainer girlfriend, Choi Yeon-ah, played by Chae Seo-jin. He pursues his profession passionately, all the while struggling to come to terms with his unhappy childhood as his alcoholic, abusive father lies in bed with dementia. 

Byun Yo-han (left) and Kim Yoon-seok star in “Will You Be There?” (Lotte Entertainment)

As the older Soo-hyun knows all too well, his younger self is on the brink of losing Yeon-ah, the most important thing in his life. He strives to save her, without disrupting his later life and the birth of his beloved daughter Soo-ah, played nimbly by Park Hye-soo.

“I wanted to portray, with sincerity, a man who throws all he has at saving the person he loves,” said Kim, who delivers a pathos-rich performance, at a press conference on Monday in Seoul. “It is also a story about the life of a man. The younger (Soo-hyun) is sensitive and hurt, but also possesses an explosive energy. The older (Soo-hyun) is mellow, preparing to wrap up his life.”

What ensues is a reflection on a flawed, scarred life, underlined with regret and yearning but also with warmth and optimism. Memories are cherished but life is lived. New relationships are fostered; old loves remain very much alive.

Musso expressed satisfaction with the film’s script in a video released by Lotte Entertainment, the film’s distributor, on Tuesday.

“The film features a Korean actor I like very much,” said the writer. “I first came to know Kim Yoon-seok through his role in ‘The Chaser,’” he added, referring to the 2008 film by Na Hong-jin. 

Kim Yoon-seok stars in “Will You Be There?” (Lotte Entertainment)

“There were many offers from the US and Europe to turn the book into a film that I refused. But I accepted this offer from Korea,” he said.

“Making a novel written by a French writer, set in the US in 2004, into a Korean film set in Korea in 2015 was an interesting process,” said the film’s director Hong.

The 45-year-old female director, who studied philosophy at Yonsei University, said that she focused on the essence of the novel.

“It’s about loneliness, often manifested through narcissism,” she said -- shown in the older self-serving as a father-substitute figure, advising and guiding the fragile younger self.

“All people have regrets they would like to fix by traveling back in time,” she said. Hong’s debut film “The Naked Kitchen,” which gracefully tells the story of three unordinary loves, achieved critical acclaim.

Unpredictable, thoughtfully written and subtly acted, “Will You Be There?” is an engaging, moving drama. It hits Korean theaters on Dec. 14.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)