Another Movie Guy?: "Daytime Drinking," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

It’s fitting that I write my review of Daytime Drinking in the midst of a hangover. I am able to fondly remember the memories of last night and  also wonder why I took that last shot of whiskey. Making its debut at the DC Film Festival, Young-Seok Noh‘s wry comedy demonstrates an excellent understanding of the compulsion to booze. Because of the movie’s easygoing pace, it’s easy to overlook the observant screenplay and careful acting. Many moments are equally sad and funny, yet I found myself consistently laughing.

Hyuk-Jin is having a shitty day, and it’s about to get worse. His girlfriend just broke up with him, and his inebriated friends aren’t much help. They suggest getting out of town – one friend remarks that he’s close with someone who runs a small bed and breakfast. Against his better judgment, Hyuk-Jin heads to the mountains, only to find that his friends got so drunk they forgot about the plans. It’s off-season and there is hardly anyone around. Hyuk-Jin buys some booze, and tries to make the  most of his time. He’s depressed and is the kind of pushover that anyone can easily exploit. He runs afoul of a cute girl, only to discover that she has a boyfriend (or pimp, I’m not quite sure). They get shitfaced together, Hyuk-Jin pulls a move on the girl. He wakes the following morning on the side of a mountain road. His wallet and phone are missing, as are his pants.  Some of the people he later encounters are kind, and have bizarre customs. Hyuk-Jin only wants to get home, strangers only want to get him drunk. He gets increasingly depressed, and comes perilously close to snapping.

The movie is funny precisely because Young-Seok Noh understands his characters so well. Hyuk-Jin, for example, is a pushover. He’s too meek to assert himself, so when he gives away wine and a door slams in his face soon after, it’s easy to understand why. From the audience I heard several coos of pity, but Sam-dong Song, who plays the protagonist, never makes his character too pathetic. His stoic persistence saves the story from becoming too miserable; in fact, his reactions are the source of the movie’s many best jokes. One understated moment in particular, in which Hyuk-Jin has an unexpected visitor in the shower, had everyone in the audience rolling with laughter. The style is consistent with is subject. There are few quick takes, and the camera often lingers for extra seconds. The result is occasionally tedious and ultimately effective. As Hyuj-Jin and his new fiends get drunk and dance around, the stationary camera observes like a friend too plastered to participate. I emerged from the theater with a sharp understanding of the characters. Still, Daytime Drinking‘s biggest weakness is its production values. Some shots have the sharp detail of excellent film stock, others have the grainy look of a cheap digital camera. Perhaps more importantly, whoever wrote the subtitles has a poor understand of English. Slang is incorrect, there are subject/verb errors, even some spelling errors. Thanks to the lighthearted tone, such mistakes add the movie’s quirky charm.

Most Korean movies I’ve seen are deeply disturbing. Daytime Drinking is the first I’ve seen from this country which lacks any scenes of sado-masochism. That is not to say, however, that the movie has a universal appeal. There are allusions to drinking customs that I don’t quite understand (any Korean readers care to explain?). The movie provides modest entertainment that’s handled uncommonly well. Like many long benders, I’m sure my memories of it will grow more fond as time passes. Now that my hangover is mostly gone, I just need to figure where I can pick up some soju.

Here are other solid movies in which young men go on disastrous multi-day binges:

Bright Lights, Big City. At the height of his popularity, Michael J. Fox starred in this adaptation of Jay McInerney’s novel. He plays Jamie, a New York City fact checker who hates his life and overcompensates with booze and cocaine. Jamie is reeling from the loss of two women – his mom recently died, and his supermodel wife (Phoebe Cates) left him. Like any bright-yet-reluctant substance abuser, he needs an enabler. He finds one in Tad (Kiefer Sutherland), a party animal with Superman-like stamina. Tad’s cute, younger cousin has not yet been corrupted by the New York City lifestyle, so when she visits, she provides Jamie with a chance to straighten out. Since the book is written in second person (it begins with, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning”), I idly wondered whether the camera would solely be from the protagonist’s perspective. I was wrong. The story is told in a conventional style, and features the occasional voiceover. Fox does solid work as an addict – he plays the high-functioning kind, the one who looks alright as long as you don’t look too close. The only other actor to leave an impression is Jason Robards, who plays Jamie’s boozy, nostalgic mentor. Yes, stories of 80s excess are annoyingly common, yet those who aren’t annoyed by Bret Easton Ellis will likely enjoy this occasionally observant drama.

Under the Volcano. Albert Finney won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Geoffrey Firmin in this John Huston-directed movie. Firmin is a British diplomat living in 1930s Mexico– he has little responsibility and only really retains his title. He spends every conceivable moment drinking – there are some allusions to the tumultuous political climate, yet they’re secondary to the booze-soaked task at hand. There is no hope for the man – even when his estranged wife returns to Mexico, and his half-brother also arrives. They go through the motions of rescue, yet resignedly understand that oblivion is Firmin’s sole destination. Huston is no stranger to Mexico (if you haven’t yet, watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and his scenes, particularly those set in local watering holes, drip with atmosphere. Yet it is Finney alone who makes the movie special. Before him, drunks were played as over-the-top caricatures. Ray Milland, who won Best Actor for The Lost Weekend, is a shining example of this. Finney’s performance is assuredly controlled – he never overacts, and consistently hits the right notes. Firmin is the kind of drunk who, in fleeting moments of relative sobriety, urgently must communicate his true feelings. It is the kind of acting that any drinker, myself included, can instantly respect.

Withnail & I. Of all the movies about articulate inebriates, this one is easily my favorite. It focuses on two unemployed English actors as they escape London squalor for countryside squalor. They can barely keep themselves together, and rely on drink to get through the torturous day. Marwood (Paul McGann) is the more sensible one – when a desperate Withnail wants to chase lighter fluid with antifreeze, Marwood wisely observes that one shouldn’t mix drinks. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is the brilliant one – he easily converses with his uncle in Latin, and deftly dupes his friend. Both actors are quite funny yet never go for the easy punchline. The biggest laughs from the fact that they are clearly not meant for the countryside – at one point, Withnail ponders a live chicken and asks, “How do we make it die?” They are at their best in bars and restaurants, where they can easily exploit unsuspecting entrepreneurs. As the story continues, it becomes clear that Marwood and Withnail are growing apart, and that their dubious lifestyle cannot continue. The movie therefore becomes a swansong of their friendship and of alcoholic excess. It should come as no surprise that Marwood has some success, whereas Withnail is reduced to performing Hamlet before zoo animals (his final bow is terribly sad). With its endlessly quotable dialog and unique attitude towards 1960s England, Withnail & I should be on any respectable boozehound’s DVD shelf.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I bitterly argue over a verdict.