|Tang Wei and Hyun Bin impress in Late Autumn, director Kim Tae-Yong's involving if unremarkable update of a thrice filmed tale (twice by prolific director Lee Man-Hee) about two dubious individuals who find a chance connection. Kim moves the location from Korea to Seattle and sets the story among the Asian diaspora. Somber prison inmate Anna Chen (Tang Wei) receives a 72-hour furlough to attend her mother’s funeral. Her reason for incarceration is not known yet, though a wordless prologue gives a big clue. En route from Fresno to Seattle, she meets ladykiller gigolo Hoon (Hyun Bin), who's on the run from as-yet-undisclosed dangers.
Hoon borrows US$30 to catch the same bus Anna is riding, and while she flatly refuses any lasting connection, he insists on somehow meeting her again to pay her back. She doesn’t hold him to it, but after awkwardly interacting with her family, she bumps into Hoon on the Seattle streets. A chance meeting becomes an attempted fling, desired solace becomes a silent date, and before long the two become something akin to friends. Romance does follow, but not as quickly or as completely as one might hope for. At the end there is minor illumination, but a climax worthy of the film's two gorgeous leads? Not so fast.
Putting previous versions of Late Autumn aside, Kim Tae-Yong's take finds its greatest strength in its characters and the actors who play them. The slick Hoon spouts much empty dialogue, but his devil-may-care cad emerges as a man with a sympathetic if compromised soul. Hyun Bin is physically perfect in the role, and is able to play off Hoon's awkward English as a part of the character's verbal mask. Tang Wei outdistances Hyun handily through her silence; Tang absolutely owns the screen when she says nothing, her stony expressions made riveting by subtle body language and also her eyes, which limitlessly portray her inner emotions.
The leads forge a convincing connection through glances and silent tension, which is great because the script is far less forthcoming. Late Autumn is deliberately elliptical in its narrative, with greater conflicts confined to only two or three scenes. In between sudden and sometimes labored turns in the story, the film plays out as a routine domestic melodrama or a Seattle travelogue (the city is portrayed attractively and enjoyably by DP Kim Woo-Hyung). Some details take the length of the film to get explained, meaning lots of time waiting for answers. But it's to the actors' credit that they’re able to do so much with so little. As a demonstration of wordless performance, Late Autumn is a clinic.
The film's character-through-inaction is so convincing that when dialogue does show up, it's noticeably ill-fitting. Hoon and Anna sometimes engage in knowing pantomime, which can be silly or ridiculous, as it is during a scene where the two provide voices for a pair of quarrelling lovers in the distance. Anna's dialogue, especially, comes off as forced and far too literate for the woman she seems to be portraying. This scene and a subsequent, out-of-nowhere fantasy dance sequence (not between the leads) gives Late Autumn an air of pretension that falls flat. The film has a few funny moments, but they're awkward ones. One such moment, a dust-up between Hoon and Anna's old flame (Jun Kim) at Anna's mother's funeral, is hilarious but likely inadvertently so.
Late Autumn is hard to appreciate as a complete film. It's probably too unrevealing and clumsy for discerning western tastes, though fans of Tang Wei and Hyun Bin will be tickled by the sheer amount of time the film spends with the stars. For the art-appointed Asian cineaste, the film is a flawed curiosity, with its greatest accomplishment being the space and patience given the actors. In that, Late Autumn is a grand success, as it creates life and emotion through silent, subdued performance – a thing that few media besides movies can completely and compellingly do. Late Autumn is questionably fulfilling, but simply watching Tang Wei and Hyun Bin is worth the time.
(Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2011)