Review: Lee Joon-ik’s “Radio Star”

An entertaining tribute to the power of radio and music, Lee Joon-ik’s 2006 film Radio Star re-teamed popular actors Park Joong-hoon and Ahn Sung-ki, this being the fourth film they have starred in together, after Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. Park this time is Choi Gon, a washed-up former rock star managed by Min-soo (Ahn), reduced to singing in cafes and getting arrested due to his violent temper. After the latest of these episodes, Min-soo arranges the bail money for Gon’s release from jail, with one catch: he must work as a DJ at the local radio station in Yongwon, a sleepy backwater town. Gon sees this as the ultimate humiliation, but has no choice but to accept. He has a rough time with his first show, due to his unwillingness to participate, a relatively untested young producer (Choi Jeong-yoon), and an expletive-filled on-air phone call from the man Min-soo borrowed the bail money from. However, the show quickly gains popularity, and becomes a community center, a source of advice, and a bulletin board. The townspeople are wonderfully drawn, and are generously given their moments to shine. For example, there is the coffee-shop girl Sun-ok (Han Yeo-woon), who tearfully apologizes to her mother for running away from home; a flower-shop worker who enlists listeners’ help in wooing the bank teller he is smitten with; a group of older women squabbling over the rules to their card game. Throughout the film, the corporate world of Seoul is contrasted with the more down-home qualities of regional towns.

Radio Star was Lee Joon-ik’s follow-up to his historical drama The King and the Clown, the top box-office hit of all time in Korea before Bong Joon-ho’s The Host bested in 2006. His first contemporary story after his historical films, including his debut Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield, Radio Star nicely balances humor and more poignant moments. Ahn Sung-ki is especially fine as Choi Gon’s long-suffering manager, whose intense loyalty to his charge causes him to neglect his own family. Despite their dissimilar settings, Radio Star shares some interesting affinities with The King and the Clown. Both films concern performers and how their art impacts their personal lives. The court jesters of King and the Clown and the musicians of Radio Star are passionate about their art; in the latter film the aspiring rock band East River doggedly pursue their idol Choi Gon, petitioning him to help them get their big break. Also, both films are affecting portraits of male friendship, and the complex relationships, breakups and reunions of the male characters are given center stage. Radio Star confirms Lee’s considerable talents at making effortlessly entertaining films told with visual flair and vivid attention to character.