Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A student activist endures the summer heat in a provincial town peeping through the floorboards of his  second floor apartment, lusting after a woman who is someone else's wife. Heralded by critics to be a bold examination of human relationships and symbolic of South Korea's violent and uneasy path towards democracy, director Park Jae-Hong's controversial and erotic movie could have arguably been all that, had it not been a déclassé and unacknowledged remake of Peque Gallaga's 1985 classic film, Scorpio Nights.

The year is 1980 and Sang-Ho (Ryu Su-Yeong) is one of many students who are on the run following the Kwangju incident. Fearing apprehension, he seeks refuge in a rural town, renting a small room above a place occupied by a young couple; biding time, waiting for things to settle down. He's a virtual stranger in this part of the country where he doesn't know a single soul, and as his prolonged isolation and constant fear of being caught gets to him, along with the humid weather, Sang-Ho turns to voyeurism to while away time. Spying through holes in the floorboards, Sang-Ho starts to lust after Hee-ran (Kim Ji-Heon) who lives downstairs. Observing her each and every move, Sang-Ho finds pleasure in watching Hee-ran prance around the house in a charmeuse chemise without a care in the world. He spends his days and nights fantasizing about the young woman, and looks upon the young couple as  part of his daily  routine. He's aroused and titillated by the mechanical way in which the husband, Tae-yol (Choi Chul-Ho) makes love to his wife; bewildered by the cool and detached way in which they treat each other.

Drunk with desire and loaded with restless energy, Sang-Ho seizes the chance to make his dream into a reality by stealthily entering the couple's apartment while Tae-Yol is away and having sexual intercourse with an inert yet receptive Hee-ran. This first encounter leads Sang-Ho to risk another lovemaking session, where a sexually stimulated Hee-ran is roused from her state of half-slumber to discover that the man she was with was not her husband. And so begins a dangerous love affair, characterized by peep shows and stolen moments; marred  only by the looming threat of getting caught by Hee-ran's volatile husband.

Summertime is, by all respects, your average film erotica with ample nudity and sweaty simulated coupling staged in the confined spaces of a warmly lit, sparsely furnished, one room apartment. It beckons viewers to share Sang-Ho's growing infatuation with the pretty neighbor who lives right below his dark temporary abode in the midst of the dreary landscape; showcasing the peephole as a passageway to a world that promises unbridled passion and life...  As a sex film,  it accomplishes its purpose of providing a means of escape, it even manages to lavish actress Kim Ji-Heon with the camera work and attention befitting an object of desire. Director Park Jae-Hong teases his audience well, showing  Hee-ran lazily draped on the bed; it's accentuated by shots that show the hem of her chemise momentarily lifted by a rotating fan, just enough to expose a lacy undergarment. Viewers can't help but be mesmerized by this imprisoned goddess who languidly stretches about like a cat, it's actually in these uninhibited moments that one sees what Sang-Ho sees and dares to covet. At times the camera angles are downright lascivious but these bits and pieces serve as a fitting prelude to the two characters' endless bouts of sex.

As a film that allegedly makes a statement on the political climate of South Korea in the early 80s, Summertime is more of a clumsy attempt at injecting historical relevance to an otherwise lousy knockoff of a Filipino "experimental" film. And while on an intellectual level it might be plausible to argue that the three characters in this story represent a microcosm of Korean society at a time when student activism was instrumental in raising the awareness of the masses to fight against an oppressive regime, the elements introduced in the story were far too weak, too flimsy to support this interpretation. For all intents and purposes, it is an intriguing analogy-- to liken a bloody revolution to an extramarital affair-- the problem is,  even though the events that transpired in the movie occurred shortly after the Kwangju incident, the actual references thereto were far too limited to overcome or draw attention away from the movie's sexual content. A short radio announcement at the beginning of the film, a few lines from Sang-Ho admitting his minor participation in the incident and a Time magazine article splattered with his semen does not exactly alert the average viewer to Summertime's underlying political content. As such, the variations from the original story appear to be more of contrivances to romanticize the affair, with the back story as to how Hee-ran and Tae-yol's marriage came about being more of an afterthought than a deliberate move to further the plot.

At best, Summertime stands out as a product of South Korea's liberal film policy; it's more of a reflection of the reduced level of government censorship that the industry enjoys as a result of the country's shift from a military dictatorship to a thriving democracy instead of an actual representation thereof. What makes it less compelling than its lesser known predecessor is perhaps the writer's failure to recognize the limitations of its source material. Scorpio Nights was conceptualized first as a "bold film" that challenges the general notion of what is and is not pornographic. Partly inspired by Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of Senses, it slowly evolved into an exhilarating and nerve-wracking piece of cinema that explores human behavior in the throes of passion, or rather in that movie's case,  how humans react in the clutches of unhampered lust. It's a movie that took advantage of the no-censorship policy that came out in the mid-80s and is one of the most notable products of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) mainly for its controversial content and heady depiction of infidelity in such close quarters. Scorpio Nights succeeds to capture one's attention not only because of its visceral images but also because of the heightened sense of danger that comes with the more frequent and daring encounters between the two lovers. In effect, it was more straightforward, more grounded, unlike Summertime which had to contend with layering such a simple plot in order to justify the film's [pretend] depth.

As a standalone film, Summertime's use of sexual imagery inevitably overshadows the political aspect it tried so hard to integrate within the original story. Part of the fault lies in the failure of the movie and its characters to engender a sense of reality, there's almost an artificial quality to it that's very disengaging from the very beginning. Ryu Su-Yeong as the student who stirs up this forbidden passion from the complacent Hee-ran plays Sang-Ho like a lovestruck, hormonally charged teen more than a heroic activist turned  enraptured  lover. Meanwhile, Kim Ji-Heon's Hee-ran appears too happy in her gilded cage to be mistaken for an oppressed and detained wife.  All decked in lipstick and rouge, her sudden desire for freedom after experiencing the pleasures of the flesh  in turn make for a frivolous heroine as the supposed love story between her and Sang-Ho never developed naturally. It's one messy affair as the film never really managed to bring out the political narrative that was theoretically hiding underneath its erotic artifice. For this reason, one is much better off watching Scorpio Nights; it has a more direct and honest approach, furthermore, anyone who's seen it can attest that it never fails to incite discussion.


  1. Wow review! :-) Oh boy, I didn't know Summertime ripped off Gallaga's Scorpio Nights premise, tsk. At least Park Jae-hong could've acknowledged the fact. (Kind of like when Scorsese claimed that The Departed was loosely based or merely inspired by the Infernal Affairs trilogy, when -- hello it was a faithful pound-for-pound remake! The 2 movies could've been superimposed and you wouldn't see much difference! Hate it when that happens.)

    Haven't seen Scorpio Nights. Actually, I hate to admit it, but I haven't seen much from the Golden Age of Phil. Cinema -- Brocka, Bernal, etc. I guess these films weren't that... accessible to regular non-film major students in the 1990s and 2000s.

    So you're saying that Scorpio Nights didn't have the socio-political pretense that Summertime did, and was really just a stripped-down story about 2 people in the throes a forbidden love affair? What makes it a classic, then? (Besides what you said were the "visceral images" and "heightened sense of danger.") Just curious, really. (LOL, I think this calls for... a Scorpio Nights review!!! XD)

  2. For starters, and I can't freakin believe I'm saying this, there's something disturbingly beautiful about the way Scorpio Nights was filmed. I'm sure you can find critics out there who'd say that it's symbolic of the Filipino sentiment under martial law but I'd like to think of it as more of a bold experiment that got lucky in pushing cinematic boundaries.

    Despite the thin plot and the explicit sex scenes, the sight and sound of it is something that you are not prone to forget easily. It's really something that you should see for yourself in order to understand all the hoopla surrounding it. The lighting and the set design take on a life of their own and the actors (one of whom is currently a provincial governor) were just fearless in their roles. It's been 25 years and this thing is as notorious as it was when it first came out and I reckon it'll remain that way for years to come.

    I'm not really much of a critic but if you want to read up on a review, you can check out the one posted by Oggs Cruz here or see Noel Vera's interpretation of it as an allegory on his blog here. :)

    As for what makes a film a classic? I think a movie has to be able to stand on its own, such that a viewer comes away from watching it feeling something and having a brand new or re-enforced perspective of the world he lives in without necessarily knowing the historical context or the intent behind the creation of the movie from its onset. If the point of the movie is too layered or obscure, or something that any regular joe can't readily pick up, in essence, it becomes a failure... This is just my opinion as an avid viewer but I'm sure real film buffs and film majors follow a more objective criteria in measuring a movie's standing.

  3. P.S. Just realized that Oggs also made reference to Summertime. Anyway, this guy happens to write for Twitch so he should have interesting stuff to say about Scorpio Nights as a movie. Noel Vera on the other hand has seen loads of Filipino films, he may even specialize in them. :)