By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, April 5 (Yonhap) -- The word "gisaeng" beams mostly negative images as a hostess and prostitute in modern-day Korea.
But it originally referred to female artists who worked to entertain dignitaries and kings with dance and singing, poems, calligraphic works and paintings during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the last kingdom of Korea.
And that was the occupational pride retained by So-yul, a girl raised and educated at one of Korea's last-remaining, top schools for training gisaengs in Seoul in director Park Heung-sik's new film "Love, Lies."
In the period drama set in early 1940s Seoul under Japan's colonial rule, So-yul develops a close friendship with classmate Yeon-hi (Chun Woo-hee) as both are talented students at the past's equivalent of a K-pop entertainment agency.
So-yul is acknowledged to be a master in "jeongga," a vocal genre in traditional Korean music, despite her young age, and has striking good looks, too, while Yeon-hi is born with a beautiful voice that tugs at people's heartstrings.
So-yul comes to harbor a dream of becoming a pop diva after her boyfriend, hotshot composer Yun-woo (Yoo Yeon-seok), asks her to sing a song that he is going to make to soothe the mind of the Korean grassroots suffering under Japan's brutal colonial rule.
But Yun-woo soon changes his mind, captivated by the beautiful voice of Yeon-hi that he comes to hear by chance. And then a tragedy begins as jealousy drives So-yul to make extreme choices to regain everything that she thinks was stolen by her friend.
The story follows So-yul's life into a downward spiral of tragedy, leading to her final downfall.
Where "Love, Lies" falters is in the storyline. The story is more solid than in director Park's preceding film "Memories of the Sword," a Korean-style wu xia film with lots of melodrama. It is very vague, however, as the details of the shift of Yun-woo's love from So-yul to Yeon-hi are absent, and there is little offered on why Yeon-hi doesn't feel any remorse for being in relationship with her best friend's lover.
Despite Han and Chun's brilliant performances in the film, Chun's singing ability was not good enough to make audiences believe that the character possessed mesmerizing talent as a singer. (The three main cast members -- Han, Chun and Yoo -- actually sang or did the instrumental performances of the period music.) At least Chun's singing scenes should have been aided by a professional singer.
Also awkward was So-yul's very unnatural makeup as an elderly woman in the ending. Her wrinkles, age spots and gray hairs did little to make her look old.
While the film definitely has its drawbacks, you basically overlook or ignore them because of its immaculate period reconstruction.
More than anything else, the film serves as a showcase for the trends of the times with its delicately designed sets, props, costumes and music that accurately highlight Seoul of the 1940s.
So-yul appears in all different sorts of "hanbok," or traditional Korean outfit, which are elegant and graceful. Yeon-hi's stage outfits were some of the hottest fashion concepts of the era: a wide-brimmed hat and a mini-handbag, and highly decorative dresses.
There also was Lee Nan-yeong, a first-generation K-pop diva who remains the icon of the 1940s. The character was impressively played by Cha Ji-yeon, a rising theater musical actress.
"Love, Lies" is set to open in local theaters on April 13.
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