Some films you like because of what they’re not as much as for what they are. Promenade is a gentle, low-key, even old-fashioned film about warm-hearted people reacting in a mature and believable way to the softly dramatic circumstances around them. It’s the antithesis of a flashy genre film about an anti-social homemade-weapon-wielding maniac getting his revenge. I mean this in the best possible way!
The film is about four male friends in their 30s who’ve known each other since school. They have a band and put on a performance each year. The main guy we’re with the most, Young-hoon (Kim Sang-joong, The Day He Arrives), owns a small independent music store that isn’t doing very well. He’s quiet, reserved and single, but confident and handsome enough to be considered a good catch. His first love has a long overdue catch-up coffee with him only to tell him about her new husband and children. His father has experienced a breakdown after the death of Young-hoon’s mother and walks the streets all day in search of meaning.
The concert hall he books each year for the band’s annual gig becomes unavailable due to renovation. Amid all this, a new woman walks into his life. Yeon-hwa (Park Jin-hee, Shadows in the Palace) is a nightclub girl who wants to turn over a new leaf. She has escaped from her boss and his goons and easily wins over the pushover Young-hoon to become his shop assistant. Young-hoon’s friends also have various problems to overcome: one is a single dad, one is desperately single, another struggles to avoid complicity with bureaucratic corruption. How the personal lives of the men resolve comprises the rest of the film, and I won’t give too much away because it’s the simple storytelling and assured progression of the plot that sustains the film’s charm, poise and interest.
Director Lee Jeong-gook made his mark in the 1990s with films like Channel 69 and the commercially successful The Letter. Compared to the heavy-hitting films that made big waves in Korea around the turn of the millennium, Promenade seems way out of time and place. Lee uses medium-shots and longish-takes to stage scenes in a very plain and some might say uninspired fashion. (Hal Hartley’s approach might be an interesting comparative.) Music plays a big part in the film, but not in the usual approach of a score. Instead background songs are prominent, lending a sense of immersion and a touch of realism to the scene. The climactic scene -- a classical concert set in a forest -- is corny but in keeping with the unabashed tone and spirit of the film.
Above all, Promenade is a touchstone with a particular aspect of everyday Korean life -- albeit filtered densely through authorial nostalgia -- which this outsider finds appealing. The film isn’t set in the fast lane of umpteen spy, thriller, crime, action movies. Rather it relishes a slow lane stroll through simple scenarios that are far removed from blockbuster material, almost like a TV drama but without the repetition or melodrama. The last point is crucial as a hysterical story would bring Promenade down to an insufferable level. The characters don’t get too carried away and lost in their own navels.
The ‘big’ moments explored in their lives could be a part of anybody’s life, and the performances reinforce this with an emotional subtlety and neutrality. It’s a successful film, I believe, because the small moments unfold cleanly, simply and thematically over time, deepening and enriching the viewing experience. Lee seems to suggest, through the material and his approach, that you ought to appreciate every moment of nature and reality if you’re to truly have a memorable and pleasurable walk along your own promenade.
I’m not going to suggest Promenade is highly underrated, as it does not aspire to greatness and is not without problems. The second act drags and 10-15 minutes could have been cut without too much being sacrificed. (What Korean film can’t you say this about?) Some may feel it is morally preachy. Regardless, it deserves more than to have been wantonly swept aside due to the galore of the more highly marketable and conceptual films of its era.
James is a Project Manager at Madman Entertainment and a Board Member of the Media Resource Centre in Adelaide. He was the Program Coordinator of the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival and earlier completed a master’s in Screen Studies from Flinders University with a dissertation on South Korean film’s commercial rejuvenation since the mid-1980s.