I’m not exactly sure what to make of What Happened to Mr. Cha? The idea is fine and at times the film shows itself to be creative visually. Ultimately though, I found myself feeling like a fly on the proverbial wall.
Kim Dong-kyu directed and wrote What Happened to Mr. Cha? A satire about South Korean celebrity culture starring actor Cha In-pyo, as himself. It utilizes, I suspect, a lot of “inside baseball”, which combined with my lack of cultural knowledge, is largely why I felt like an outsider peeking in.
Kim doesn’t shy away from the dark side of celebrity, indeed he uses much of that as fuel for his comedy. The problem arises from not knowing who Cha is since much of humor is also steeped in his personality and legacy. It is an obstacle that Kim slowly manages to allow us to overcome as the movie trundles along.
Cha is not as in demand as he used to be. A waning matinee idol, he seems more remembered for his iconic finger wave, then for the roles he played. Kim shows us fan after fan politely requesting Cha to wave his finger at them. It is a sly nod at telling us that Cha is remembered more for his personality rather than his characters. It becomes especially clear that most people, including Cha, seem to have difficulty separating Cha from the characters he plays.
Cho Dal-hwan plays A-ram, his assistant, and is valiantly trying to ease Cha into accepting the fact that he is long past his prime. This involves A-ram making up excuses for why In-Pyo’s suggestions for the script haven’t been finalized yet. The reason is, of course, the production passed on him and hired a younger actor, and A-ram has been trying to find a way to tell him.
But all of this is merely a set up for the movie. To Kim’s credit, he takes his time getting to the main catalyst. He allows us time with Cha as a way to understand his mindset and his ego but also as a way for the difference in how his fans treat him and his associates. His fans are intrusive and bothersome while people like A-ram, humor him, and speak carefully around him to not offend him.
On one occasion Cha berates A-ram for a mistake he’s made. “It’s okay to make mistakes or be slow. Just have a sense of sincerity.” As Cha admonished him we can see A-ram mouth the words as he says them. Cha’s obsession with being sincere is ironic considering how blithely obtuse he is to the realities around him.
Of course, all of this becomes a moot point when Cha becomes trapped underneath a building after it mysteriously explodes. What follows is a series of convoluted events, some work, some don’t, in which bureaucrats, private contractors, and A-ram, try to deal with the collapsed building. The joke is most of the people in the movie have no idea that Cha is under the rubble, alive and naked. He was taking a shower to wash off the mud and dog feces, don’t ask.
Kim does a good job setting all this up and making sure nothing is too over the top. The pacing of the movie is laid back sapping the urgency out of the tense moments and giving them too much time to breathe. The movie seems, at times, stifled by an overwhelming blandness.
It doesn’t help that so much of the comedy in What Ever Happened to Mr. Cha? is the type of comedy where it is a series of misunderstandings but all of it could be cleared up if a character just said a single word or line. When done correctly this type of comedy can be joyride but when done wrong it can feel cruel and humiliating towards its characters.
Cha’s nudity is part of the reason A-ram can’t tell the others that his boss is trapped underneath. The fact that it is a girl’s theater community center is another. But all these explanations have harmless explanations and none of them so complex as to be inexplicable in context.
He spends much of the movie trapped on his back communicating in secret with his assistant on his cell phone. Though I did enjoy the aspect of the movie in which rumors began online about Cha’s possible run for political office. Kim does a clever job playing at how stories manage to spin out of control online with little to no help from the actual actors in the story.
Cha himself is an amiable actor with enough charm to carry the movie through its rough spots. He has a hard job, trying to play himself trapped naked on his back under a pile of rubble. Kim’s script doesn’t give him a lot to work with but for a comedy, they manage to make it work.
Kim, at times, shows a wonderful visual flair for storytelling. Much of What Happened to Mr. Cha? is shot in a fairly straightforward way with little to no overt stylistic choices. But there are times, such as when A-ram argues with the trapped Cha, that Kim goes for broke. A-ram isn’t arguing with the trapped Cha, he is arguing with the different variations of Cha, the public’s perception of him, his perception of him, the movie star version of him, all of them laid out like a cheese board surrounding A-ram as he tries to make his boss understand that he’s not the man he once was. It’s moments like these that make me curious to seek out Kim’s other work or at the very least hope to see more from him.
What Happened to Mr. Cha? requires a certain understanding of Korean culture and South Korean that I am sadly ignorant of. That being said I enjoyed the idea behind it as well as Cha’s seemingly up for anything attitude. But in the end, I found myself largely ambivalent towards the film.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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