An egotistical actor is given an unexpected lesson in what it is that makes life worth living when he’s suddenly transported to a parallel world in Ma Dae-yun’s charming Christmas dramedy, Switch (스위치). Rather than the body swap comedy the title might suggest, Ma’s warmhearted morality tale is a more a meditation on what might have been and may be again while contemplating the emptiness of a life of fame and riches when there’s no one to share it with.
“What matters more than money?” top star Park Kang (Kwon Sang-Woo) chuckles after telling his manager he’ll accept a job he just described in quite insulting terms after being informed it comes with a hefty paycheque. Kang is currently riding high. He’s become enormously successful and even a recent sex scandal involving his co-star in a TV drama has only boosted his profile. Yet he tells his analyst that he can’t sleep and attributes it to “depression and anxiety”. He treats those around him poorly and most particularly his long suffering best friend from his fringe theatre days, Joe Yoon (Oh Jung-Se) who now works as his manager, while struggling to accept his loneliness and meditating on lost love in the memory of the woman he broke up with in order to chase stardom.
After getting into a weird taxi one Christmas Eve, he’s suddenly granted the “wish” of getting to find out what would have happened if he’d made a different choice. After waking up in an unfamiliar house he discovers that he’s married with two children and slumming it fringe theatre while Joe Yoon is now the superstar having aced the audition Kang ran out on to chase Soo-hyun (Lee Min-Jung) to the airport and convince her not to leave. Of course, Kang is originally quite unhappy about all of this. He doesn’t understand why no one recognises him anymore and resents that he’s suddenly subject to the rules of “ordinary” people again after a decade as a pampered star. In his acceptance speech after winning an award, he’d stated his intention to “forget” his roots as a humble actor and embrace his new role as a member of the showbiz elite fully demonstrating his sense of alienation and insecurity along with his intense loneliness. As the taxi driver had said, Kang has “everything”. He’s achieved his dreams and lives the high life he’d always dreamed of, yet he’s deeply unhappy.
But his “new” life immediately challenges his sense of masculinity in realising that he has little power without money and is in fact financially dependent on Soo-hyun whom he may also have robbed of a bright future by preventing her from studying abroad and achieving success as an artist. Meanwhile he looks down on himself for continuing to follow his artistic dreams in fringe theatre when his plays attract few audiences members and make little money. Just as Joe Yoon had become his manager, so he ends up getting a taste of what it’s like trying to manage a “star” while coming to appreciate that Joe Yoon may be feeling just as lonely and unfulfilled as he once had.
Yet even as Kang settles into his new life as a husband and father while slowly rebuilding his acting career though a combination of talent, supportive friendship, and good luck, he fails to learn the right lessons continuing to yearn for external validation through material success. He spends money on fancy dinners and tries to move the family into a swanky apartment in Seoul without realising that he’s already got a “home” in the quaint little provincial house he and Soo-hyun set up together filled with memories (that admittedly he doesn’t actually have) of the children when they were small. Slowly, he begins to look beyond himself while developing a new sense of security that means he doesn’t need to chase status-based affirmation in empty materialism but now has a new sense of what’s really important. A charming season morality tale with a little more than a hint of A Christmas Carol, Ma’s gentle drama never suggests that success itself is wrong or that Kang must give up his movie star persona to become a happy everyman but only insists that true happiness is brokered by treating others well and being treated well in return much more than it is by consumerist success.
Switch screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 22/24 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.
International trailer (English subtitles)