At first glance, Once in a Summer looks like your typical nostalgic tearjerker aimed at mass audiences. Long before it was released, the distribution rights were sold for US$4 million to Japan, where films of the pure love genre have performed very well. The film was also co-written by Kim Eun-Hee and Kim Eun-Sook, who've collaborated on several successful Korean dramas. And the biggest factor of all: it stars Korean heartthrob Lee Byung-Hun as a romantic lead. The film looks like just another another formulaic attempt to cash in on collective nostalgia - a type of film that Korean Cinema already has far too many of. However, despite looking like an obvious product for the masses, Once in a Summer is actually not all that bad.
Once in a Summer opens in modern day at a television station where a writer tries to save her job by claiming to have booked famed professor Park Suk-Young (played by Lee in gray hair makeup), who was once her professor. After seeking him out, he agrees to go on the show if she can find a woman named Seo Jung-In (played by Soo Ae). It turns out Suk-Young (played without gray hair by Lee) was a politically apathetic student in 1969 South Korea. To get out of working for his father's company, he followed his left-wing radical classmates to a rural town to work for the summer as a volunteer.
There, he met Jung-In, the local librarian who was treated especially harshly by the mayor because of a past crime her family committed, making her the black sheep of the village. Suk-Young falls in love at first sight, but Jung-In requires a little romancing before she can return the affection. But even once they've finally fallen in love, her family's past and the politically-turbulent time come to tear the happy couple apart.
Once in a Summer may just be another way for Korean filmmakers to cash in on nostalgia, but credit director Jo Geun-Sik and his screenwriters for using it as more than just a way to create tragedy. Little bits of period detail, such as the small town's attempt to install electricity, an outdoor public movie screening, and the villagers gathering to watch the Armstrong moon landing, effectively place the viewer into the mood of the times. While the past does end up being used to create tragedy, Jo manages to establish a nice balance for most of the way - at least enough that people won't criticize him for whitewashing history. Despite that, the use of the Park Chung-Hee regime to create a fictional "pure love" story seems contrived by any means, and Once in a Summer is sadly no exception.
Luckily, Lee works extra hard to show why he's one of Korea's best actors. The role of Suk-Young is not a stretch for Lee, who gave a chilling performance in 2005's A Bittersweet Life. However, he manages to exude enough boyish charm to make him an easy character to root for, despite being a few years too old for the role.
Soo Ae does fine with her character, who is so innocent that she can't even bring herself to read a sex scene from a novel for the village elders. Soo does transition between lovable and tragic modes fairly well, but Lee's is really the performance that keeps the movie going.
The problem with Once in a Summer isn't its somewhat uncomfortable mix of innocent love and political turmoil, but really how formulaic the whole exercise is. Fix two attractive stars together, put in touching melodrama, a bit of violence, some tragedy, and a movie is concocted. There's lots of tears, people getting slapped around, and even an embrace in the rain. On the other hand, Jo does try to tone down the romance portion, which can be a good thing. But sometimes a formula is there for a reason, and the romance in Once in a Summer feels too platonic for it to make the type of impact that the film seems to think it did.
The film is entertaining, the stars are attractive, and they have suitable chemistry to make the romance work, but when the audience doesn't feel the romance, they can't get involved when tragedy strikes. It's rare that I wish for a Korean melodrama to be less subtle, but this is one of those times. (Kevin Ma 2007)