Saturday, February 21, 2015

Movie Review: "The Royal Tailors" and "C'est Si Bon"

The first time that I recall ever having watched a Korean movie was when I was in second grade. I was living in Brunei with my family at the time and the Korean government was just beginning to take its first steps in exporting modern Korean culture. Sponsored by the Korean government, three Korean movies were aired for free in a fancy cinema.

I went to watch all three movies with my family. I do not remember what movies had been shown but I do remember being nearly bored to death. Especially considering the fact that the Japanese government had done something similar a few months prior, and the fact that I had enjoyed those Japanese movies, the thought that Korean movies are terrible became permanently ingrained in my mind.

Even to this day, I still hesitate to watch Korean movies, even when I do not have to pay any money to watch them. Therefore, it came as a huge surprise to me when I watched TWO Korean movies recently and, more importantly, actually enjoyed watching them.

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The first movie was “The Royal Tailors” (aka Sanguiwon/상의원) and the second movie was “C'est Si Bon” (aka 쎄시봉).

Both movies depicted different eras of Korean history; though I am sure that the filmmakers took quite a few liberties with the truth for the sake of making their respective movies more entertaining.

Tailors” is a movie about a royal tailor (played by Han Suk-kyu) who after having served the royal family for decades, is given a rare opportunity to be accepted as a member of the nobility. He was born a commoner who rose up the ranks due to his skills. However, the royal tailor's world is turned upside down when the queen takes interest in another tailor who is younger and very unorthodox but highly skilled.

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C'est Si Bon” is a bit more... rudderless. When the movie starts, it seems like it is a movie about the formation and the rise (and fall) of Twin Folio, a popular pop-duo from the 1970s. However, as the movie progresses, it focuses more on the romance between one of the singers (in the movie, before Twin Folio was a duo, it was a trio that was called “Trio C'est Si Bon”) and a budding actress.

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The cinematography in “Tailors” was excellent. Its story was told in a humorous and light-hearted way (at least in the first half of the movie), which made watching this period-piece a delight. Its trippy dream sequence that involves giant rabbits on the moon was a laugh and the clothes – the clothes were colorful, bold, vivacious, and beautiful. It was a feast for the eyes.

C'est Si Bon” had different strengths. The mellow music was a welcome break from the usual bubble gum pop that is K-pop's bread and butter. For older viewers, the movie brought pangs of nostalgia as the movie carefully shows what was beautiful about the past and hides the uglier and seedier aspects of it.

However, both movies had their weaknesses; and it is the same set of weaknesses that plague many Korean movies. Both are unable to maintain the frenetic energy of the first act. Whereas the first act is comedic, light-hearted, and fun, both movies fall into formulaic melodrama in the second half. The romance in both movies are very traditional and chaste (yet far more watchable and tolerable than anything in the Twilight film series). And both lead actresses' characters (Park Shin-hye as the queen in “Tailors” and Han Hyo-joo as the actress/the trio's muse in “C'est Si Bon”) were underused and underdeveloped.

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Both movies had their strengths and weaknesses. However, there is one element that I thought many film reviewers missed. It is that both movies contain messages that are anti-authoritarian and pro-freedom.

In the case of “Tailors,” the younger tailor (played by Go Soo) represents rebellion against the established order. Instead of designing clothes the way they have always been designed for no other reason than that has always been the way clothes were designed, the young tailor laughs. He is a man of integrity who knows what he wants – to design beautiful clothes the way he wants – damn what others say or think. Unlike Han Suk-kyu's character, Go Soo's character refuses to sell his soul. After all, selling one's soul is the easiest thing in the world. That's what everybody does every hour of his life.

I don't know if the filmmakers behind “Tailors” were channeling Howard Roark but that was all I saw.

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As for “C'est Si Bon,” the movie's main protagonist (played by Jung Woo) represents one person out of countless many who had been brutalized and victimized by an authoritarian government. His crime – having smoked marijuana at a time when there were no laws against the consumption of marijuana. His punishment – becoming the victim of retroactive laws, the loss of his friends, the loss of his reputation, and the loss of the woman he loves.

The movie was as much an anthem to the victims of dictatorship as it was also a comedy and a drama.

Movies are important tools to disseminate ideas and to shape the social/political/cultural/economic zeitgeist of the age. Although two movies do not make a trend by any stretch of the imagination, considering the pro-freedom and anti-authoritarian messages within other movies as well, such as “Snowpiercer,” I certainly hope that more movies of this nature will continue to be produced.

For those of you who do not speak Korean, I do not know when there will be English subtitles available for either movie. However, when there are English subtitles available, I recommend that you watch them.

The Royal Tailors” was produced and distributed by Showbox Mediaplex Co., Inc. and C'est Si Bon” was produced and distributed by CJ E&M Pictures.


  1. For what it's worth, I did notice the anti-authoritarian message in both these movies. I just personally have a hard time getting worked up about fashion and weed as the signifiers of free societies, which I suspect is part of why I didn't enjoy these movies as much as others did.

    1. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Schwartz. I read your film reviews from time to time.

      I think it is a mistake to accept the movies' treatment of fashion or marijuana as signifiers of a free society at face value. That would be akin to thinking that Snowpiercer was a movie about a long train ride, no?

    2. Hm, a fair point. Even so, if you want to interpret Snowpiercer as just being about a long train ride, it still makes for a fairly fun action movie. As much as I enjoy critical analysis I tend to think of it as secondary to the superficial interpretation. To each their own, of course.