When one of NYAFF’s programmers introduced Top Star, he said that it was surprising that this was Park Joong-hoon’s directorial debut. Park has worked as an actor in the Korean film industry for 28 years, but this is his first time behind the camera. Over the years, he has starred in around 40 films, and has clearly amassed a wealth of knowledge about both the life of an actor and also what goes into the production of a film. The programmer called its style impressive and confident, the kind of thing you only see after a filmmaker has hit their stride.
Written as a combination of fiction and fact from his own experiences and those of friends, it definitely feels like a project from a more established director. But Park himself prefaced the film by saying he’s not really a fan. He says there are problems with it and he sees many places where it could have been improved.
While I think I liked it more than he did, I tend to agree.
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Top Star (톱스타)
Director: Park Joong-Hoon
Tae-Sik (Uhm Tae-woong) is the manager of South Korea’s biggest movie star. Won-Joon (Kim Min-Jun) is your typical star: arrogant, good-lucking, and lucky with the ladies. He’s not the most scrupulous guy, but then again, he’s a professional liar. When it really comes down to it, he’s not that bad of a guy. Even so, he is immediately positioned as the story’s antagonist when he steals Tae-Sik’s jokes and fake acceptance speech after winning yet another award., The tables turn once Tae-Sik takes the fall after Won-Joon gets into a drunken hit-and-run. Nobody’s killed, but Tae-Sik offers himself up. In response, Won-Joon gives him a role in a major drama series. From there, Tae-Sik quickly rises to the top of the charts, surpassing Won-Joon as the “It” guy of South Korea. Cue industry infighting.
It’s the kind of story you’d expect from a movie star. This is the life he’s lived and what he knows, and there are a lot of little scenes that take place during the production of the dramas and films that are fascinating. Seeing the sets and props and green screens and seeing how it all comes together behind the scenes is really cool. The high production values add to it, making the whole thing feel very signficiant.With a camera that sweeps and swoops and a pounding electronic soundtrack, Top Star looks and sounds great. But like the characters it portrays, the film lacks subtlety.
It takes less than 20 minutes for Tae-Sik to go from sympathetic to vile. And even before he shows his true colors, the film does a whole lot to hint at it. There’s an entire character whose sole purpose is to go around and tell everyone and everything that they’re “fake.” “This script is fake!” “That smile is fake!” “You’re not a good person.” He’s funny, because people who speak honestly like that are funny, but he’s not typical comic relief. Nobody in the film finds him funny. In fact, pretty much everyone finds him downright obnoxious. He shows up, tells everyone they’re fake, and then goes off to wherever he came from. A little levity is rarely a problem (and there’s not much anywhere to be found else), but it wasn’t clear how I was supposed to feel about the guy.
And that’s another problem with Top Star‘s characterization, because the characters aren’t complex so much as they are unclear. Won-Joon goes back and forth between likable and not, and Tae-Shik is ostensibly the protagonist, but he’s awful. Top Star also tells the story of fall from grace. But even though it’s an inherently sad thing to see someone fail, you can’t feel bad for the guy. I mean, he deserves everything bad that happens to him, and there’s nothing really done to make him more sympathetic. The experience doesn’t humble him or really make him change in any meaningful way. He apologizes to a longtime friend while he’s in prison, but the words ring hollow.
But the decision to have Tae-Shik as the protagonist made me think that was a mistake. Maybe I was supposed to root for Tae-Shik as he rose to power and then lament his subsequent failure. Perhaps I was supposed to overlook the fact that he was a completely useless human who stepped on everyone else to get what he wants. But how could I? I wanted him to fail. Watching his downfall felt like vindication. That makes sense for an antagonist. Not so much a protagonist.
Even so, the film ends on a hopeful note, which I found both surprising and somewhat off-putting. At the Q&A session with director Park Joong-Hoon after the screening, someone commented, “It had more redemption than I would have expected from a Korean movie.” The director replied that there had been a darker version but that he prefers films that make people feel happy. It was an odd thing to say, because Top Star is not a happy movie.
Perhaps that’s one of the things he wishes he’d changed.