Thursday, March 22, 2012

Movie review: Gabi (가비)

For how interesting of a topic it deals with, Gabi (가비) is not a particularly well-done movie. It has some great scenes, but overall it took one of the most fascinating episodes in Korean history and turned it into an elaborate tea party. Okay, so it was a coffee party, Gabi(加比) being an outdated word for coffee, but I walked away decidedly underwhelmed.

Gabi deals with a pair of events that has been discussed many times online and offline, including English. The far more significant event is the time Gojong, the last real king of the Joseon dynasty, spent at the Russian legation in Seoul in 1896 because he feared for his security from the Japanese.

The lesser event, though the one that gives the movie its name and figures prominently throughout, is that Gojong tried and grew to like coffee while at the Russian legation. It is sometimes reported that Gojong was the first Korean to try coffee, which is simply not true. Accounts of Koreans drinking and enjoying coffee go back as early as the early 1880s.

The movie begins with a look at the intrigue at play as Korea fended off Japanese and Russian attempts to gain influence on the peninsula, but then turns into a feature film-length version of those cringe-worthy ads that seek to “brand” Korea domestically or internationally.

The character of Tanya, played by Kim Soyeon, is a well-known barista who impresses Russian men with her ability to remember orders even when a large group changes their seats, and then impresses Antoinette Sontag, a prominent figure in turn-of-the-century Seoul, with her ability to brew coffee. Just when you think that the whole thing is going to be a nauseating ode to the ability of a Joseon dynasty woman to impress white people with her piety and virtue, along comes Gojong.

Gojong, like his contemporaneous Chinese counterpart Guangxu, was a weak and ineffective emperor who tried well-intended reforms that doomed both his dynasty and his country. He was portrayed quite well by Park Heesun, a man perplexed as much by the gravity of his situation as much by how far he had sunk, in contrast to Kim Soyeon’s role as something of a prototypical Korean Air flight attendant.

I confess that I didn’t understand much of the movie, but to me the movie did a good enough job of portraying Gojong’s isolation and his attempts to navigate a way out of the crisis, but that was only when we weren’t being treated to Kim Soyeon solemnly serving coffee with all the mechanical movements and personality of the aforementioned flight attendants.

Some of the scenes depicting Joseon-era Seoul (or Hanseong, if you will) were really interesting, though I left the movie with the taste of vomit rather than coffee in my mouth thanks to the last line of the movie, which was something along the lines of, “to one man, coffee was love; to another, it made him an emperor”. Gojong declares a Korean Empire near the end of the movie, a curious moniker that fit the circumstances, I suppose, but sadly was not enough to avoid absorption by the Japanese.

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