‘Oishi Man’: Magic of Love, Youth

Franz Kafka once said that “literature must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”, and good movies, like books and other works of art, sometimes have such inspirational power. “Oishi Man” is yet another small jewel of a film by Kim Jeong-joong, and despite its prevalent imagery of the frozen sea, the youthful romance seethes with warmth.

Perhaps love and youth compliment each other like no other pair can. Kim broke hearts with “HERs”, set in snow-covered Alaskan plains. This time, the director takes viewers to the ice floes of northern Japan. In “Oishi Man”, two young starlets ― South Korean model-turned-actor Lee Min-ki and Japanese heroine Chizuru Ikewaki ― make music and magic.

Hyeon-seok (Lee), a once promising musician, suffers an ear problem and ends up teaching tone-deaf “ajummas” (aunties) at a local singing class. The film shines upon hidden talents of the pretty-faced actor, as he croons rock tunes and ballads effortlessly and breaks down as his character discovers he’s losing his singing ability.

He spends each day listlessly, surviving on the simplest meal in the world, a concoction of raw egg, soy sauce and white rice (though such minimalism becomes a luxury when he runs out of soy sauce). Hyeon-seok instructs his students, who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, literally with a bucket. He tells them to sing with a pail over their heads so they can listen to their inner voice, but he himself cannot.

One day he meets Jae-yeong (Jeong Yu-mi, “Family Ties” – “The Birth of a Family”), a young woman who says she was a fan of his in his better days. He feels an attraction but can’t find the courage to open up to her ― even when they are both intoxicated with Jae-yeong’s killer boilermaker, beer and soju mixed at a 3:7 ratio, rather than the other way around.

Feeling suffocated by his mundane existence and seeking silence from Seoul’s noise pollution, he takes a trip to Mombetsu, Hokkaido. At the airport, he meets Megumi (Ikewaki), a bizarrely dressed young woman who happens to run a small bed and breakfast.

The heroine of “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish”, a small Japanese indie flick that took Korea by storm 11 years ago, returns as another peculiar but adorable character. Like Hyeon-seok, Megumi also seems out of place in her hometown, as the only young person in a place populated by older people, where time seems to stand still. Her only comfort is smoking and enjoying a little drink on a swing outside her inn. A visit by a young foreigner brings novelty to her life.

The two, while communicating in broken English, discover a common language in food and music ― “Oishi” meaning “delicious” in Japanese, is the first word Hyeon-seok learns. They struggle to mend each other’s broken souls, and an unforgettable winter romance blooms. Ice would be the last thing one would expect to melt frozen hearts. Likewise, the movie’s magical aura manifests itself in the portrayal of ice fairies, or “kurione”, fantastic aquatic creatures shaped like small white angels that live only in the iciest seas.

The movie invites comparisons to the international hit “Once”. Like the song-ridden Irish love story, sometimes love between two people is consummated in not being consummated, at least in the conventional sense of “happily-ever-after” endings. While “Oishi Man” is also about music, the soundtrack is strictly limited, unlike “Once”, where the music dominates the narrative.

The poeticism of the movie lies in the silence between the notes. “Oishi Man” is indeed “oishi”. The tasteful film tugs at the heartstrings without being the least bit sappy, and does not get too heavy, with lots of comic relief.

Now playing in theaters. 12 and over. 96 minutes. Distributed by Sponge. In a mixture of Korean, Japanese (with Korean subtitles) and broken English.

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