Following his “sleeper” hit, Sleepless Night, Korean indie director Jang Kun-jae gets a touch of the Hong Sang-soos in the bifurcated tale of artistic inspiration found in a foreign land with the Korean/Japanese co-production A Midsummer’s Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아, Hanyeoreumui Pantajia). Mixing naturalism with hyperreality, Jang’s exploration of cross cultural pollination is one which offers both fireworks and quiet contemplation.
Neatly split into two parts, the film begins with a black and white sequence titled First Love in which a Korean director travels to a tiny Japanese town on a location shoot accompanied only by his assistant playing the role of interpreter. A beautiful country idyll, the village is also dying as the population ages leaving the local school abandoned for over 25 years with only the elderly left behind by their children who’ve fled to the cities. After talking with some of the residents, the director is captivated by the romantic tales of a local civil servant who acted as a guide for a young Korean girl some years previously and that of a slightly older man who once worked in the big city of Osaka and took a liking to a Korean bargirl who reminded him of his first love but tragically lost touch with her after deciding to return home.
Inspired by these twin tales of frustrated cross cultural romance, part two switches to colour for a story titled The Well of Sakura in which a Korean woman pays a visit to the same small town before heading home. A local man from the tourist office helps her out by showing her around a little and is, in truth, disappointed that she will be leaving soon never to be seen again.
The first half is shot entirely in black and white with a documentary style approach filled with ugly jump cuts and direct to camera speeches from the local residents about their daily lives in the town. Wandering around the picturesque settlement and listening to the stories of its lonely older population, what the director is most taken with is the wistfulness of the place – the sense of unresolved longing, faded promise and missed opportunities the abandoned village seems to evoke.
Part two is his response, a constructed tale of unresolved romantic connection between a Japanese man and a Korean tourist who’s ventured somewhat off the beaten path both physically and spiritually in visiting this quiet backwater before returning to the various problems which seem to be proving disruptive in her everyday life in Korea. Picking up elements from part one such as the abandoned school and its mysterious photograph, it weaves an ordinary tale of love as two people begin a dialogue they may never have the opportunity to end.
However, part one is not quite as naturalistic as it first seems with its wandering ghosts and strange symbolism. Even if the bright colours of the film’s second half are intended to feel more “cinematic” and therefore less “real” than the black and white, talking heads doc meets indie movie feel of part one it’s clear that both segments are involved in a dialogue, or perhaps even a romance, with each other – a case of call and response which begins and ends with fireworks.
It’s difficult to unsee Hong Sang-soo in Jang’s dual structure and straightforward if occasionally whimsical approach, yet he’s a little less flippant than Hong’s often ironic tone and is content to let even his imagined tale of a failure to launch romance say something more meaningful if only through simple conversation. Filled with cross cultural detail, A Midsummer’s Fantasia is both about place and not as it, like the director of the first half, is keen to point us to the who and not the where – people rather than place are the name of the day. Filled with an oddly melancholy warmth, A Midsummer’s Fantasia is another excellently produced character piece from Jang which explores larger themes with a poetic economy and heart filled with “romance” in much a larger sense.
A Midsummer’s Fantasia is available on English subtitled Region 3 DVD from Korea.