CAFE NOIR (2009)
A lusciously shot billet-doux to Seoul traversing well north of three hours in run time as it profoundly portrays a melodramatic view of romantic angst
Café Noir watches as the final manic project of a tortured directional genius in their twilight years. As if the director was given the remit to create whatever long, bizarre and self-indulgent film they wanted.
It is instead a debut feature of critic-turned-director Jung Sung-il and despite its tumefied length, it manages to be a consistently challenging and stupefying. An arthouse project that got out-of-hand, but one packed with such philosophical musings it never feels wasteful.
For highly regarded critic and former professor Jung, he has walked the walk by crafting a unique film clearly from a place of personal inspiration.
Despite its expansive run time, the narrative arc within is relatively simple. We are instead treated to developments which amble at their own pace, alongside several sweeping shots of Seoul’s various hubs and alcoves. It is based chiefly on the literary works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s White Nights
Young-soo (Shin Ha-kyun) is a music teacher left lovelorn after an affair he was having with a student’s mother, Mi-yeon (Moon Jeong-hee), ends. The return of Mi-yeon's husband (Lee Sung-min) signaled the deathroll of the extramarital foray, leaving Young-soo heartbroken with thoughts of revenge.
He later meets a young woman Sun-hwa (Jung Yu-mi) by chance and learns she has been waiting for her lover (Kim Sang-kyung) at a bridge for a year. They start to see each other everyday and Young-soo starts to fall for her, but Sun-hwa remains steadfast that her lover will return. This enables one of the film’s finest scenes, an extended monologue from Sun-hwa explaining her situation.
Among these heartbreaks, we see a vivacious messenger motorbiking around the city delivering ‘kiss-off letters’ and packaged messages, who eventually meets Young-soo too.
As these romantic encounters and disappointments unfurl, the film leaps from a modern melodrama in colour to a black-and-white European noir, something straight out of the French art house scene. With Sun-hwa's monologue, the film feels like a stage show at times too.
At one point the film even bursts into an extended dance performance which is completely out of place while simultaneously completely on brand for this bizarre and unique film.
The former critic director also found time to reference some of Korean cinema’s most notable moments, such as shopping for a hammer to attack the husband ‘like in Oldboy’, and discussing the monster from The Host by the Han River.
Café Noir will undoubtably have to defend itself against charges of self-indulgence, which is inevitable for a film of this length and arty toning. The result might be a film more popular with critics than audience members, as three hours and 20 minutes is a lengthy sitting for any cinema go-er.
Allow yourself to get lost on the streets of Seoul as our eccentric ensemble wax lyrical on romantic near-misses and hopes, and wonder at Jung’s superb direction and shots, and you will be left with an astounding and profound work of cinematic art.