The strong chin, sleek look and deep voice of Lee Byung-hun immediately make him a charismatic figure. Whether he is slinging guns in “The Magnificent Seven” or breathing down the neck of Kyle Reese in “Terminator Genisys,” Lee’s character traits in films have mostly been like his image: a man you do not want to mess with.
This aura is shattered immediately in “Keys to the Heart” — co-starring Youn Yuh-jung and Park Jung-min — where Lee plays a washed-up former boxer who gets by day to day.
Director Choi Sung-hyun takes Lee and Youn, two of the heaviest hitters in Korean cinema, and creates a comedy flick that viewers can enjoy without a care in the world.
The plot revolves around two brothers who are estranged from their mother, In-suk, who ran away from her abusive husband nearly three decades ago. Jo-hwa — played by Lee — is the older brother who holds a grudge against his mother for leaving him with his violent father, and Jin-tae — Park’s character — the musical savant younger brother.
Right off the bat, the movie sounds like a cheap knock-off of Oscar-winning 1988 classic “Rain Man.” But the film does have its own merits.
The transformation of Jo-hwa — initially painted as a jerk — is painfully obvious and predictable. He is the pinnacle of the “loveable loser”; misunderstood, abandoned by mom, has a violent side, but also good-hearted. Of course, his conflict with his mother can be reconciled, her sins can be forgiven and anyone watching their first five minutes together can guess that they will end up loving each other again.
Jin-tae is the loveable doofus in the picture. He behaves like a child, but has a brilliant side to him. He is annoying to no end, but you cannot help but root for him.
The characters are generic, the plot is predictable and there are virtually no surprises coming around the corner.
The film’s charm comes from the acting. Lee‘s brilliance is that he shines even when portraying a rubber-stamp character.
“Laughter and tears is one of the most obvious ‘formulas’ that has continued from the birth of the very first movie. Our film follows the formula, but I think people still seek out these movies because the depth and details (of the film) stands out,” Lee said at the premiere of the movie, held Wednesday in Seoul.
Youn, who jokingly said Lee never felt like her son because of his sheer presence, commended the chemistry of Lee and Park and said she was disappointed with her own performance. Her brilliance as an elderly prostitute in last year’s award-winning “The Bacchus Lady” is missing, but her presence plays a critical role in holding the plot together.
The directing, while passable, does not stand out. The story is very much one-dimensional and virtually all of the characters — with the exception of Jo-hwa — are static throughout the film. The landlady and her daughter, even the former piano prodigy who supports the brothers, are all mere plot devices. This is particularly disappointing as the latter is played by Han Ji-min, one of the biggest names in the credits.
To ensure that all the heroes are likeable, the movie inserts an almost comic book-like villain, Jo-hwa’s father, to stand on the other side of the spectrum. His sinister looks, voice, exaggerated expression and utterly unremorseful attitude show he exists for the sole purpose of evil. The character fails to add any depth to the story, in stark contrast to the abusive father in Yang Ik-jun’s brilliant 2008 film “Breathless,” who was there to provoke thoughts on inherited violence.
While Park Jung-min shows his talent in playing the musical savant, he is grossly underused in that Jin-tae is merely a subject of the other characters’ conflict. The chemistry between the brothers — who are featured heavily in the promotion — is smaller than that between the mother and son. This is partly why it feels much different from “Rain Man”; it is essentially a mother-son story, not one of brotherly love.
The flick is by no means a masterpiece, and is hardly comedy gold. But it does deserve a place in the hearts of people who seek that warm, fuzzy feeling from a family picture, standing on some good acting.