The Moonlight of Seoul (a.k.a. Beastie Boys, 2008) was an eye-opener in more ways than one.
First, I had no idea male host bars even existed. Female hostesses I had seen plenty on screen, but guys doing the same thing for a living? That was surprising. Second, I never thought my much-admired Ha Jung-woo capable of violence against a woman. But he is, here. That wasn’t a man at the receiving end of his vicious blows but a woman. Even though it was just acting, it was still shocking to watch. Third, I was expecting a movie, so the documentary-like realism in The Moonlight of Seoul caught me off-guard. I wish I was better prepared. (Note: Best not to be eating when watching this.)
Ha Jung-woo is Jae-hyun, “Hyung” to the male hosts in the movie and “Oppa” to his girlfriends. He’s a bundle of contradictions. Jovial and kindly to his underlings, he is almost paternal the way he takes them under his charge. His voice is tender with them, his manner indulgent. No wonder the guys seem happy, seemingly unaware that their nightly parade before the ladies is reminiscent of slaves in period dramas standing on a platform waiting to be chosen by their future owners.
Debonair Jae-hyun runs his stable of male hosts like a meticulous mamasan, ensuring they keep up with their “skills” and appearance. But his own life is a mess.
Spending more than he earns, he must rely on handouts from Girlfriend A, Han-byul (Lee Seung-mi) and Girlfriend B, Mi-sun (Yoon Ah-jeong). A 50-million won debt owed to a loanshark, Chang-woo (Ma Dong-seok), reduces him to a cowering huddle pleading for mercy in a grimy toilet.
(It makes me giggle that Chang-woo is able to strike so much fear in Jae-hyun with not a gun or knife but a wrench! Bespectacled Chang-woo also looks nothing like a thug. You can tell from his repeated repayment concessions that he’s really more bark than bite, which makes it ironical that Jae-hyun should be so afraid of him. One more trivial fact: Ma Dong-seok and Ha Jung-woo acted together in the 2007 action drama H.I.T., so it’s cute to see them on opposing sides this time.)
Among Jae-hyun’s male hosts, the one closest to him is Seung-woo (Yoon Kye-sang), who also happens to be Han-byul’s brother. Seung-woo knows how Jae-hyun is like with women and money, so he warns his sister never to give or lend money to Jae-hyun.
Seung-woo is supposedly the most sought after male host in the bar (which surprises me because he isn’t the best-looking there; neither is he a particularly smooth talker). We learn over the course of this overly-long movie (two hours but feels longer) that he’s from a wealthy but now bankrupt family.
His family’s fallen fortunes and his parents’ separation (each is in a new relationship) seem to have scarred Seung-woo considerably. He experiences (most unconvincingly, if you ask me) nightmares that make him wake up sobbing, and he’s distrusting and perpetually on edge. The money is good, but he tells friends he’s quitting the host bar as soon as he’s earned enough.
(I’m not sure if Yoon Kye-sang was trying to absorb his character’s moody personality to a tee or he was just exhausted, but there was no spark in his acting. Especially at the beginning of the movie, it felt like he was just going through the paces. Having watched and liked him previously in Flying Boys and Who Are You, I would say he showed more vim and range there than here.
Am I being unfair because I’m comparing him to a faultless Ha Jung-woo and a near-faultless Yoon Jin-seo? Or is it the fault of the writing that makes me feel a disconnect with the Seung-woo character? His relationship with his sister is skimmed over, and there are just too many gaps in his past to make me feel sympathetic. I don’t buy the crying and nightmares and rage; they just feel overwrought, like someone smashing a glass against the wall because an ant crossed his path.)
Ji-won (Yoon Jin-seo) works as a hostess by night but dreams of starting her own little boutique. She comes to Seung-woo’s host bar with her friends one night and gets to witness an ugly altercation between her friend and Seung-woo.
Either her job has desensitized her to bad-boy behavior or she is shadier than she appears, Ji-won later vacates her apartment and moves into a new one with Seung-woo, paid for by him (the rent, I mean). He also gives her an allowance, perhaps as a stamp of ownership. Oh wait, let’s backtrack a bit here. In their second or third accidental meeting, Ji-won tells Seung-woo that she’s a hostess who doesn’t sleep around. And then of course proceeds to sleep with Seung-woo.
Of the three main characters in the movie, Ji-won’s is the most complex. (And Yoon Jin-seo is just a revelation here, so different from her quiet outing in Superstar Mr. Gam.) But when I say complex, I don’t mean the character is well-written, with a lot of depth, with many layers that beg to be unpeeled. I just mean it is ambiguous. I can’t understand her.
Until the end I’m unsure if Ji-won really loves Seung-woo or is out to con him. On one hand she has a fresh-faced innocence that belies the fact she is a hostess. On the other hand she possesses a certain hardness that makes us wonder if it is even possible for her to feel hurt. Whatever the obstacle or blow (even the physical ones), she just bounces right back. But of course even the hardiest can’t survive the jungle forever.
I went into this movie with mixed expectations.
Positive ones, because I liked Yoon Jong-bin’s movie, The Unforgiven (2005). I wouldn’t say I was blown away by it (more blown away by Ha Jung-woo’s monster acting), but I was impressed that a debut work by a graduate student shot on a budget of 25,000 US dollars could be this well-written and engaging. It was a movie with guts and heart. A true labor of love.
Apprehensive ones because whatever The Unforgiven’s strengths, there were filming moments that felt amateurish, plot twists that were unwarranted, and some scenes that would have benefitted from tighter editing. But those were all really small quibbles.
Unfortunately, the warm feelings I had for The Unforgiven could not be reprised for Yoon Jong-bin’s second movie.
The Moonlight of Seoul must be the first Ha Jung-woo movie that I couldn’t wait to finish. More than once I paused the movie to check how much time was left and was dismayed that the ending was more than an hour away. Seriously? But it felt as if I had already watched two hours’ worth. And more than once I asked myself, “Exactly what is the movie’s message?”
If Yoon Jong-bin’s purpose was to make a documentary about a seedy and seldom-explored part of Seoul’s nightlife, he succeeded. The rawness and realism in the movie were disquieting, to say the least.
Was that male host jiggling that woman’s ample breasts? Yes. Was that a sex orgy with naked or scantily-clothed couples making out all over the room? You bet. (And it was surreal how unaffected the orgy’s non-participants were about all the thrusting and moaning, as if the orgy was so everyday.) Did Yoon Kye-sang really puke? Of course. Yoon Jong-bin is known for his long takes, and so Seung-woo regurgitates again and again, the disgustingly green and congee-like vomit surging forth from the depths of his abdomen. I felt ill just watching. (Take a bow, Yoon Kye-sang. How were you able to puke on command?)
But it was the violence against the women in the film that I disliked the most.
Jae-hyun is all honey when wooing Mi-sun, assuring her that Han-byul is history. But when Mi-sun reneges on her promise to repay his loan (so that Chang-woo need not brandish that damned wrench), he explodes and hits her. And he’s not the only one. Seung-woo punches Ji-won with such force I thought surely he would break her nose.
Wherefore the violence?
The women in the movie are portrayed as men-needy. Mi-sun is easily deceived, Mi-sun can’t stand to see Jae-hyun getting beat up. Han-byul swears she’s done with Jae-hyun but then mortgages her business to pay his debts. When Ji-won leaves Seung-woo, it is to another man she turns. She can’t crawl out of that cesspool that is her life.
And the men? They don’t change. There’s no redemptive quality in them, no remorse or soul-searching. Jae-hyun is not going to change his stripes, Seung-woo’s rage can only bring his downfall. The male hosts’ gaiety is unreal, but who am I to question what’s real and what’s not? So much of the movie is shot in places so dark I could barely make out the shadows.
Moonlight (as opposed to sunlight) is supposed to be romantic, but there’s nothing romantic about The Moonlight of Seoul. Watch it if you don’t mind the reflux and burning sensation in your throat. (I hate reflux.) Watch it for Ha Jung-woo because the man can play anything, even an amoeba, and infuse it with such fire it will light up the darkest sky. Believe me.