Review: Lee Joon-ik’s “Sunny”


Lee Joon-ik’s filmography includes both period films (Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, The King and the Clown, Battlefield Heroes) and contemporary music-themed films (Radio Star, The Happy Life). Lee’s Vietnam War drama Sunny, combines these two modes, its story inspired by the phenomenon of music stars who traveled to the front as “consolatory bands” to boost the morale of the many Korean soldiers who fought in Vietnam on the American side. Over 300,000 Korean soldiers fought in Vietnam, some of whom were accused of war crimes, making this period as crucial a part of Korean history as it is of American history. The Vietnam War has been explored in other Korean films, two significant ones being Jung Ji-young’s White Badge (1992) and Gong Su-chang’s horror film R-Point (2004). Lee’s take on this subject adds a couple of intriguing wrinkles, the first being its musical focus – the Korean title translates as “My Love is Far Away,” taken from the name of a song by the popular 70’s female singer Kim Choo-ja, which is sung by the film’s protagonist. Also, Lee tries something new, for him – making a film with a female character at its center, in direct response to critics who found fault with the almost exclusively male-oriented milieus of his previous films.

The film’s protagonist, Soon-yi (Soo Ae), is introduced to us singing a plaintive love song in front of some older women in the countryside where she lives. She is trapped in a loveless arranged marriage to Sang-gil (Eom Tae-woong), currently serving in the army, and her hostile mother-in-law (Lee Joo-sil) makes her visit him once a month at his barracks. This leads to a particularly tense scene in which we learn that Sang-gil has been carrying on an affair with an old girlfriend. “Do you even know what love is?” Sang-gil asks her, coldly turning away from her. Sang-gil later gets into a brawl with his superior, and is sent to the raging war in Vietnam as punishment. When Soon-yi relates this news to her mother-in-law, she unleashes a vicious round of invective against Soon-yi, blaming her for it all, and accusing Soon-yi of driving her son to war, especially because of her failure to produce a grandson. Sang-gil’s mother packs her bags, determined to go to Vietnam to search for her son, but Soon-yi stops her, saying she will search for him. After she unsuccessfully petitions the army base to let her go to Vietnam to search for Sang-gil, Soon-yi stumbles on an agency that sends entertainers to Vietnam to perform for the troops. When she is turned down here as well, she runs into bandleader/hustler Jeong-man (Jeong Jin-young, from The Happy Life) who, after a blowout with his previous lead singer, makes Soon-yi his new singer. Jeong-man owes people left and right, and sends his band to Vietnam in order to earn money to pay off his debts, a fact he neglects to mention his band mates. They perform at bars and army bases, Soon-yi (now known by her stage name “Sunny”) getting over her shyness and soon slinking on stage in ever more revealing outfits. These events are paralleled with scenes of Sang-gil on the battlefield, often set to Soon-yi’s singing on the soundtrack.

As admirable as Lee’s attempts are in expanding his cinematic focus to include women, he ultimately fails at this goal in Sunny. Lee and his regular screenwriter Choi Seok-hwan are clearly on much less sure ground than in their previous films, and Lee often seems flummoxed by his female character. The reasons for Soon-yi’s all-encompassing fervor for searching for a man that by all accounts she doesn’t really love, and who certainly doesn’t love her, remain fuzzy almost to the end, and Lee clearly doesn’t have a clue as to what is motivating her. Lee eventually falls back into more comfortable territory, and a great deal of screen time is devoted to the internecine squabbles among the male band members. Soon-yi’s story gets lost among the male band members fighting and the war scenes, and at times, it’s almost as if the film is struggling to remember that this story is supposed to be about her. The wonderful actress Soo Ae, so good in such films as A Family (2004) and Once in a Summer (2006), is almost wasted here, her character too often relegated to bystander status in her own story. Still, whatever heart and emotion this film retains, as well as its best scenes, belong to her alone. The depiction of the Vietnam War also fails to convince; the film too often traffics in the hoariest of war-film clichés, especially in two fairly risible scenes where the band encounters Vietcong and American troops. The film becomes more and more divorced from plausibility as it progresses, and my heart sank near the end when the story calls for Soon-yi to degrade herself in a way which really shows the film up for the ridiculous male fantasy that it is. And while the conclusion tries to restore at least some bite to Soon-yi’s character, it doesn’t erase the illogic of what came before. In the end, despite Lee’s declared good intentions, this film is just as male-centered as the rest of his films.