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Ice Bar
Year: 2006
Park Ji-Bin and Shin Ae-Ra
Director: Yeo In-Kwang

Park Ji-Bin, Shin Ae-Ra, Jang Joon-Yeong, Jin Goo, Ham Eun-Jeong, Kwon Byeong-Gil, Lee Byeong-Hyeon

  The Skinny: A cute but bittersweet family film about a child's determination to find his father, and a family-friendly melodrama that's an enjoyable enough time at the movies. Just plan on forgetting having seen it after a few hours.
Kevin Ma:

     My father used to tell me stories from his childhood growing up in the streets of Hong Kong. One of those stories was about the odd jobs he would take as a child to support his family, one of them being a delivery boy for a neighborhood restaurant. He would ride his bike around the dangerous streets of Hong Kong in the 60's, delivering food. I think my father would've certainly connected with the young protagonist of Ice Bar, a bittersweet coming-of-age drama from South Korea that should bring back childhood memories for baby-boomers around before the advent of child labor laws.
     Set in 1969, Ice Bar takes place in a small seaside town of South Korea, where life for 7 year-old Young-Rae (promising child actor Park Ji-Bin) is not easy. Living under an indifferent landlady, his mother (played by television veteran Shin Ae-Ra) struggles to make a living as a single mother peddling smuggled cosmetics in the streets. However, she gets arrested so many times that she can't make enough money to pay Young-Rae's school tuition. Meanwhile, Young-Rae gets bullied by the neighborhood kids because he's a "fatherless brat," and his only friend is the scheming orphan Dong-Su. One day, his mother's best friend accidentally tells Young-Rae that his father, whom he believed to be dead because mom says so, is actually alive and well in Seoul.
     Defying his mother, who lied to Young-Rae because she believes that the father will take him away, Young-Rae-Rae decides to save money for a trip to Seoul to find his father. With Dong-Su's help, Young-Rae gets a job peddling ice bars in the streets. Young Rae earns one won at a time, but he is unfortunately not very good at his job, encountering bullies, lack of customers, and angry train stationmasters. Luckily, with the help of In-Bak, a young man working at the ice bar factory who is forced to deliver smuggled goods for his boss, Young-rae begins to find success despite a few stumbles along the way. Even then, Young-rae will still have to get over his biggest obstacle in the search for his birth father, namely his mother.
     On the surface, Ice Bar may seem like an innocent little comedy, but in many ways it's not. First-time director Yeo In-Kwang treads carefully between childhood innocence and much of the melodrama that has defined Korean film over the years. An adult may find much of the film's melodramatic touches to be mild in comparison to what they've seen previously (Ice Bar received a "suitable for all audiences" rating in South Korea). However, children might come out rather shell-shocked after seeing kids getting hit repeatedly (by both other kids and adults), and also get into a rather brutal accident involving a train. Just because a film is told from a child's point of view doesn't exactly guarantee a clean time at the movies. Yeo, however, does manage to keep a light tone to the proceedings. Except for the aforementioned accident, the kids never suffer any serious consequences as a result of their actions, but rather a sort of "kids will be kids" lesson. This, along with the surprising, albeit contrived, happy ending, makes this an overall children-friendly affair.
     Of course, that depends on where you're from. Ice Bar carries with it 30-some years of history that may raise more questions for foreign viewers. How is it possible for Young-Rae's mom to sell "smuggled cosmetics?" What exactly is In-bak's family history (kids might not even quite understand what a "commie" is)? Why do people beat each other up so much? There are a number of purely Korean references that may bring up nostalgia for Korean baby boomers (who I suspect are the real target audience of Ice Bar), but everyone else will be left scratching their heads, looking to connect the dots. Fortunately, these references don't hinder much of the enjoyment viewers can get from Ice Bar since the film is really about the struggles of childhood and the simple joy of everyday life rather than cultural nostalgia.
     What keeps Ice Bar engaging are really the performances. Park Ji-Bin pretty much has to carry the entire film as the inquisitive Young-Rae, and he does it with a childish charm that makes him such an immediately likable character that your heart might die just a little every time Young-Rae gets hit. Shin Ae-Ra, being a veteran of TV dramas, is no stranger to melodrama, and her convincing performance as a struggling single mother can range from heartbreaking to smile-inducing. However, her character's motivation is never entirely clear. Unless there was some kind of alternative motivation for her actions not expressed in the subtitles, there was not really any reason for her actions throughout the film. Nevertheless, Shin still manages to craft a likable character, given what she had to work with.
     Ice Bar may be just another typical Korean melodrama, but it does successfully stray from the "pure love" formula for a mostly enjoyable, albeit somewhat brutal family-friendly drama where, for once, no one suffers from a terminal disease. While the cynic in me might have hoped for Ice Bar to end 10 minutes early for a darker and more realistic ending, the happy ending is certainly less punishing for viewers who sat through 90 minutes of bullying, punishment, and just generally unkind characters. Heck, it even comes with a nice little life lesson for the kids. For family entertainment, you can do a whole lot worse than Ice Bar. (Kevin Ma 2006)

Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
2-disc edition
16x9 Anamorphic widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Korean subtitles
Making-of featurettes, interviews, trailers, etc.
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen