January 16, 2009


Ad Lib Night

Ad Lib Night (Aju teukbyeolhan sonnim)
Directed by Lee Yoon-ki
2006, 99 minutes, In Korean with English subtitles

Trying to stay a hop ahead of the cultural curve, my Friday column has been designated for shiny new releases or retrospectives each week, but considering my best options were a humdrum biopic on Biggie Smalls, a 3-D remake of an '80s slasher flick (don't get me wrong, I'll see this year's Snakes on a Plane, but how commendable could it possibly be?), and a shallow Ozu homage from Germany, I've decided to dip into the GreenCine DVD catalog and pull out a recent-ish, little-seen gem that is NOT AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX. Film of the Week, case closed.

Ad Lib NightOne of my favorite if overused descriptors of a film is "deceptively simple," that skilled maximizing of minimalism that unfortunately makes novice filmmakers with arty inclinations believe profundity can be mined from barely anything happening. There's definitely a richness to the third austere feature from South Korean filmmaker Lee Yoon-ki (This Charming Girl, Love Talk), which begins with a modest premise. On the streets of Seoul, two young men from a tiny village stop an attractive twenty-something girl (Han Hyo-ju), whom they've been searching for based on rumors of her whereabouts. Her name is Myungeun, or so they believe, and their quest is to bring her back home (for the first time since leaving in junior high) to see her father before he passes away from terminal cancer. Stone-faced and cagey, she aloofly denies that she's the girl they remember, but agrees out of their desperation to at least pose as the long-estranged Myungeun so that a dying man can reconnect with his "daughter" one last time. There's money in the deal, and she doesn't seem to want to meet up with the stranger who keeps text-messaging her anyway.

Ad Lib NightBased on a novel by Japanese author Azuko Taira (as is Lee's next film, My Dear Enemy, which premieres at the Berlinale next month), the story travels back to the house where every living friend and family member has holed up for the night by the morphine-blurry man's deathbed, all eating and getting drunk and poking into each other's business with raised voices. There's talk of an inheritance, the consequent feelings of greed and shame quickly blurted out as points of contention, and squabbling hierarchies become clear between the generations, even as others entirely internalize their feelings. "Myungeun" especially seems affected by her role here, and whether her melancholy stems from the regret of disappearing so many years ago (if she really is her) or because she has cathartically connected with this girl she's meant to be -- assimilated not just into a family but a history of family remembrances -- we clearly understand at the same time she does that this clan has only thin, empty-hearted strands connecting them to one another.

Ad Lib NightMany dysfunctional-fam tales play off the idea that you don't have to like 'em, so long that you love 'em, but here, the more honest reflection is that pettiness and selfishness can be stronger than familial bonds. This mysterious girl serves as our way into the overlapping dramas, but her participation is less significant to the narrative beyond the drive to the village and the one back to Seoul. Both of these sequences last about 10 minutes each; the former trip builds on the moral dilemma of whether the proxy-daughter ruse is justified, while the latter reveals a quietly affecting window into her personality and how the experience has forever shaped her. Shooting in a combination of static medium shots (usually portraying the girl's voyeuristic detachment) and far more handheld close-ups (big dramas in intimate spaces), neither of which drawing attention away from the emotional wallops wrought from a single pressure-cooked location, Ad Lib Night has a fly-on-the-wall immediacy that just seems, well, deceptively simple.

Ad Lib Night is available for rent from GreenCine. For earlier appraisals of the film, click here and here.

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Posted by ahillis at January 16, 2009 2:22 PM


Aaron-- re MBV-3D, read Ms Catsoulis in today's NY Times. Her review, pretty good though not great, has got me revved to fork over the extra bucks just to see this in all its dimension-enhanced "beauty." Will I experience something akin to what I got as a kid from the early 3-Ds? Here's hoping!

Posted by: James van Maanen at January 17, 2009 9:04 AM

Well, it took two years, but I'm glad you finally saw it, and liked it. Makes those drool stains on my coat worthwhile.

Posted by: Filmbrain at January 17, 2009 11:41 AM

BACKSTORY: I attempted to see the film with Filmbrain at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, and thanks to a killer case of jet lag, I fell asleep 10 minutes in. (Sitting in the front row didn't help.) Alas, it was one of his faves at that year's fest, so when he and A.O. Scott were excitedly talking about the film as we walked away from the theater, I really felt like a chump for snoring through it. It took two years before I recently found the DVD on the GreenCine (virtual) shelf, which I didn't think I'd ever have a chance to see again...

Posted by: Aaron Hillis at January 17, 2009 12:51 PM

It's great that you're calling attention to this beautiful film. Lee Yoon-ki is definitely one of the great talents coming out of Korea these days. I wasn't able to see My Dear Enemy when I was in Pusan, but I'm hoping it'll make its way here, or barring that, I'll probably have to get the Korean DVD.

Here's my review of Ad-Lib Night.

Posted by: Christopher Bourne at January 19, 2009 9:57 AM

Hi Aaron,

You should consider some kind of regular space devoted to these "not on Netflix" type overlooked gems. I'm sure there are a ton of them...

Posted by: Josh at January 19, 2009 11:18 AM

Great pic. Almost forgot about this film. We screened this at our film school...it is worth watching.

Posted by: Film School at January 20, 2009 1:44 PM
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