A young man drowns his heartbreak in soju in this dry Korean comedy
Watching the recent crop of multiplex comedies, you'd think that young American men are never alone, traveling only in small mismatched packs that trail frizzling hormones, weed smoke, pop-culture references, and random profanities. The truth is that adolescence and its super-extended young-adult coda present, at their core, an unsure and sometimes isolating traverse between the certainties of childhood and the certainties of maturity that each must ultimately make for himself. Contemporary Hollywood bromances sometimes offer a curt acknowledgement of that fact during the big emotional denouement, but hey, as long as you have your buds, how rough can things be?
Not having your buds is precisely the situation South Korean filmmaker Noh Young-seok explores in his new low-budget, low-key comedy Daytime Drinking. Recovering from a fresh breakup, twentysomething Hyuk-jin (hangdog everydude Song Sam-dong) lets his drunken friends browbeat him into drowning his troubles in soju, the Korean national nip, on a road trip from big-city Seoul to a guest house in a rural province in the dead of winter. He makes the bus, but they don't. And just like that, Hyuk-jin finds himself alone in classic fish-out-of-water territory, and the Korean-inflected After Hours-meets-The Out-of-Towners antics begin.
Getting into what happens to Hyuk-jin in too much detail would spoil the fun. Suffice to say he winds up sleeping in crappy rooms, let down by unreliable transport, dubiously hit on by both sexes, pantsless, and brokenhearted all over again. He also winds up soused a lot. The alcohol-related rituals of Korean culture apparently put good old American post-collegiate binge drinking to shame; every meal or getting-to-know-you chat is fueled by shots of vodka-esque soju, and since Hyuk-jin is a stranger wherever he goes, that means a near-constant stream of social lubricant that he must swallow on pain of offending. His hangover is as consistent as the sunrise.
It's nothing you haven't seen before, despite the Korean setting, but rookie writer/director Noh reinvigorates the familiar tropes with a fresh sensibility and an agreeably dry wit. Hyuk-jin's abandonment by his friends plays out in a series of mumbly cell-phone conversations that ring hilariously true, as does the uneasy socializing of strangers thrown together at random. When Hyuk-jin hooks up with a spiv-ish young guy (Tak Seung-jun) and his comely companion (Kim Kang-hee) for food, karaoke, and more soju, the latter two aren't sure what to make of this city boy, mistaking his middle-class comfort for wealth, and he isn't sure what to make of them, either, especially the young man's repeated disavowal that the young woman always at his side is his girlfriend. From there, things go pretty much as you might expect, and then as you might not. And what at first seems like a bit of a shaggy-dog story unexpectedly draws itself into a tightly plotted knot at the end when Hyuk-jin's pretty-boy best friend Ki-sang (Yuk Sang-yeup) finally shows up, bringing with him as much confusion as reassurance.
Misunderstanding is the engine for Daytime Drinking's comedy, but the rootlessness that brings Hyuk-jin all the way out to provinces by his lonesome on a whim is what gives it additional substance over the average forgettable indie comedy. While his ordeal has the quality of a look-back-and-laugh yarn, it also hits notes that genuinely resonate with the loneliness and uncertainty and angst of those years in which a young man wonders what kind of man he's going to become. (The abandoned-feeling wintry countryside and ever-present chill make a big difference; Daytime Drinking would have a totally different feel if set in summer.) As much fun as it is to watch Song play the undemonstrative Hyuk-jin's subtle struggle to maintain a polite expression and an even keel, you feel for him, too, and that kind of identification is gold. In fact, bank on seeing a Hollywood remake of Daytime Drinking starring, say, Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg, in about three years. It's that good, and, more importantly, that universal--at least for dudes.