Saturday, September 7, 2013

Review: Project 577 / 577 프로젝트 (2012)

The documentary ‘Project 577’ had an unlikely origin, with actor of the moment Ha Jung-woo vowing that if he won the best actor award at the Baeksang Arts Awards, the Korean equivalent of the Oscars, for two years running, he’d embark on a cross country trek. In 2010 he took the award for his performance in the Winter Olympics ski-jump drama ‘Take Off’ (국가대표), and in 2011 he did indeed win for a second consecutive year as a North Korean on the run in the thriller ‘The Yellow Sea’ (황해).

Jung-woo planned the trek from Seoul to Haenam, in South Jeolla Province, a total distance of 577 kilometers, and decided to bring along a bunch of his actor friends while making a documentary about their journey along the way, and so ‘Project 577’ was born. While Jung-woo is in charge of everything related to the trek itself, he hands over directorial reigns to Yi Keun-woo, marking his debut feature. Jung-woo will make his own directorial debut this year with the flight comedy ‘Rollercoaster’ (롤러코스터), which also happens to feature some of the actors brought along for the ride in ‘Project 577’.

The audition process makes for amusing watching, Jung-woo personally ask his ‘Love Fiction’ (러브픽션) co-star Gong Hyo-jin to come along, and although initially reluctant, spurred on by his encouragement to challenge herself, she eventually agrees to take part on the basis that she can bring her dog for company. In total fourteen actors join the trek, ranging from regular co-stars in Jung-woo’s movies such as Kim Geun-hyeon (‘Love Fiction’ 러브픽션) and Kim Seong-gyoon (‘Nameless Gangster’ / 범죄와의 전쟁 : 나쁜놈들 전성시대), to fresh faces still looking for their big break such as Lee Seung-ha, not to mention the self-proclaimed “Brad Pitt of Korean morning television drama” Lee Geon, who joins as a last minute addition.

What makes the documentary an interesting watch is everyones motivations for joining the trek. While Hyo-jin constantly complains that she has no idea why she agreed to join, others reasons vastly vary from such polarities as trying to lose weight, to another member explaining that his manager said it would be a great opportunity to gain exposure, so try and get in front of the camera as much as possible! The focus remains on the members of the trek throughout as opposed to the actual landscape itself, and with that in mind it made me realize that it was very much made with a Korean audience, as opposed to a more international one.

Of course this could be down to my own misconceptions before watching it. Having read that it was about a cross country trek, I had expected a travelogue style piece, perhaps stopping off in some places of interest across Korea and covering their historical or cultural significance. But then again, I guess that’s what the Korean Tourism Office is for, in ‘Project 577’ the unrelenting pace of the trek mostly restricts our views of Korea to endless shots of the group marching down featureless roads and countryside lanes. While this isn’t necessarily a criticism, it does feel like a missed opportunity to cover so much of what is often a country that, outside of the cities Seoul & Busan, doesn’t get much exposure from an international perspective.

Thankfully though the interactions between the group make for an entertaining experience. From the somber musings of actors like Kim Seong-gyoon, who reveals that his role as Ha Jung-woo’s right hand man in ‘Nameless Gangster’ was the only one he got that year, to Kong Hyo-jin gradually realizing that she’s enjoying the experience, everyone reveals themselves in a refreshingly candid way. It’s not all serious though, as between the trekking Jung-woo places various comical sketches and interviews, several of which amusingly revolve around trying to setup the single members of the group with each other, as well as mock commercial breaks starring members of the group advertising everything from noodles to energy drinks. Jung-woo also orchestrates one of the most hilarious practical jokes in recent memory, but to go into it here would spoil the experience.

All in all ‘Project 577’ makes for a pleasant 100 minutes viewing of Koreans doing something they love – trekking through countryside. From my own experiences in Korea of being woken up at what seems like the crack of dawn to go hiking up a mountain or through a national park, despite copious amounts of soju being drank the previous evening, I can certainly testify for the enthusiasm the nation has for the past time, and the documentary captures it on film well. Much more than the actual physical places they’re visiting, the trek is a chance for people to bond and share their lives with each other, and for a few moments ‘Project 577’ allows you to feel as if you’re walking right along with them.

As a side note, a good companion piece to the documentary would be ‘Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles’, a book written by British author Simon Winchester detailing his own experience of walking the length of Korea. His walk was done in the late 1980s, when Korea was of course a very different country to the one it is today, and it makes for interesting reading to see the difference.

By Paul Bramhall

Catch more of Ha Jung-woo's antics at KOFFIA 2013! Star of The Berlin File and Nameless Gangster, see him on the big screen at the Korean Film Festival!

For more:
Twitter: @KOFFIAFilmFest | #KOFFIA2013
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