Some cynics believe that one of the best ways for an actor to earn award consideration is to play a mentally challenged character. This probably explains why Cha Tae-Hyun (My Sassy Girl) decided to take on his most challenging role yet with Ba:Bo, playing a man left with the mental capacity of a 6-year old after a fatal accident in his childhood. The third film by director Kim Jeong-Kwon (Ditto), Ba:Bo sat on the shelf for two years, waiting to be released. Still, the film doesn't really deserve the stigma usually attached to films mired in delays. Despite a seriously flawed ending, Ba:Bo is a gentle comedy-drama that plays lighter than your usual award bait.
That doesn't mean, however, that Kim doesn't play with the usual genre conventions. The goofy-but-lovable village fool is here, along with the intolerant family member. So is the tough-but-kind gangster. Kim even manages to fit in the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold in a distracting, but pivotal subplot. Everything is seen through the eyes of Ji-Ho (Ha Ji-Won), a professional pianist who heads home to her small town after suffering a mental breakdown. She first encounters the childlike Seong-Ryong (Cha Tae Hyun) when she arrives in town, but doesn't remember him until convenient flashbacks reveal that they had a love-and-hate relationship during their childhood.
The convenient flashbacks also show that Ji-Ho never saw Seong-Ryong again because he was kicked out of school after being accused of burning down her piano. However, it was actually class bad boy Sang-Soo that did the deed, and he became Seong-Ryong's best friend to make up for it, despite a reputation to maintain as the town's tough gangster. Even though he has Sang-Soo to protect him, Seong-Ryong has plenty of his own problems as a grown-up, too. His limited mental capacity means that he can only run a small toast stand to support his young teenage sister Ji-In after the death of their protective mother. But Ji-In is so ashamed of her older brother that she won't even talk to him at home.
Ji-In's hate for Seong-Ryong is the film's central conflict, which only leads to some overwrought family drama. However, the heart of the film is actually simply about Ji-Ho rekindling her friendship with Seong-Ryong. For some reason, she is instantly charmed by Seong-Ryong's naiveté, which somehow inspires her to get back on track to becoming a successful pianist. But that focus is often distracted by Seong-Ryong's relationship with her sister and the more annoying gangster subplot involving Sang-Soo and the aforementioned hooker-with-a-heart-of -gold. That subplot pays off eventually, but in the film's most frustrating misstep, it leads the film to an unnecessarily melodramatic conclusion.
Up to this point, Kim handles the conflicts well, without resorting to ramping up the emotions to induce tears. Even with the swelling music, Kim's handling of the emotional scenes is subdued. He even manages to have a sense of humor along the way, though one character - a strange pronunciation-obsessed weirdo - does eventually become a little too much. Nevertheless, Kim brings a gentle charm to the film that some may oppose because it undermines the serious subject of the mentally handicapped in society. But Ba:Bo isn't trying to be a realistic exploration of the treatment of the mentally handicapped. In some ways, the film is a modern fairy tale (further enforced by the voiceovers, in the style of a children's story), and Kim's handling and general tone fits that intention just fine.
Even star Cha Tae-Hyun doesn't try to grab the spotlight for himself. As Seong-Ryong, Cha is essentially playing a more childish version of his breakthrough role in My Sassy Girl. Since Kim keeps much of the melodramatic emotions subdued throughout the film, his role in Ba:Bo actually isn't particularly challenging. Cha nevertheless manages to make Seong-Ryong instantly likable upon first appearance because of his natural boyish charm. The actor also steps up to the acting challenge, pulling off the emotional moments without resorting to distracting overacting. Awards may not be likely for Cha, but Ba:Bo marks an important step in the actor's career. On the other hand, none of the other performances matches up to Cha's. Even Ha Ji-Won fails to register as more than a pretty face, as Ji-Ho is relegated to a side character as the film progresses, giving her little to do.
Ba:Bo does succumb to genre expectations and some of its worst clichés. But Kim still handles the film's emotional climax with surprising restraint, merely suggesting the events and the aftermath, but with little of the overdramatic fallout usually seen in this genre. The film manages to affect without the having characters screaming or bawling their eyes out, and it makes the audience smile without resorting to annoying slapstick comedy. Ba:Bo proves that films can have plots that seem similar on paper, but sometimes the delivery can make all the difference in the world.
(Kevin Ma, 2008)