For someone with an above-average appetite for Asian cinema, I'm aware that there's a remarkable dearth of South Korean films being reviewed on my website. Mi-yeon Lee's Bus Stop [Bus, Jeong Ryu-jang] is the good old exception to the rule, though I wasn't quite sure if the film would hold up on rewatch (to be fair, I didn't even remember what the film was about). But lo and behold, I was pleasantly surprised when I gave this film another go. It may not be the most distinctive drama ever produced, but there are moments of pure beauty here, and it comes with some hefty thematic challenges.
There's something about South Korean cinema that irks me. The reason why I suspect it does relatively well in the West is because there's a closeness to Hollywood in the way their films are paced and presented, while still carrying enough distinctive elements to set itself apart from its American counterpart. It makes their films relatively accessible, but it also dilutes them to a point where I'm just not that interested anymore. Bus Stop feels more like a Japanese or Taiwanese drama though, which is probably why it stands out for me.
Thematically the film may be a tough sell for some. At its core, Bus Stop is a pretty basic romance, but the relationship between a 30-something male teacher and his 17-year-old female pupil is sure to raise some eyebrows. It's certainly not the first film to handle such a dubious relationship, but the rather dry and unjudging way the topic is handled is probably enough to rustle some feathers. I feel this approach added to the intrigue as it challenges the viewer to come up with arguments to keep a perfect pair away from each other, but your mileage may vary.
Jae-sup teaches literature at a small school. He is loved by his students, the female ones in particular, but his job brings Jae-sup hardly any joy. He feels like an outcast to society, blending in just enough to get by, but being understood by no one. Then a new student transfers to his class. Jae-sup recognizes himself in So-hee, and as they live in the same neighborhood, they get to talking while waiting for the bus home. A special bond grows between the two, but as they are both quite protective of their feelings, it's never allowed to fully blossom.
Bus Stop looks and sounds like your typical early-millennium Asian drama. It's never too dashing or extravagant, but the film looks stylish and polished, sporting a refined color palette, subtle camera work, and precise framing. The visuals never take away from the characters and their dramatic tension, at the same time it doesn't feel like the cinematography was completely neglected in favor of those elements. It's a pretty remarkable balance few dramas are able to get right. And while Bus Stop isn't quite best in class, it does a pretty fine job regardless.
The soundtrack manages to find a similar balance, though it can get a tad more melodramatic than it needs to be. Lee goes for the usual piano and string tunes that are almost synonymous with the genre, and why would you fix something that isn't broken? The music does a solid enough job supporting the mood, though it does little to actively add to it. It's a relatively inconspicuous selection of music with only a handful of moments where it nearly falls into the trap of getting a little too cheesy. Thankfully it never quite crosses that line.
The performances in South Korean cinema are often a deal breaker for me, but Bus Stop is a notable exception. Kim Tae-woo delivers an enigmatic and powerful Jae-sup, Kim Min-Jung's performance may be even more impressive considering the age gap between the two. Mind you, they both portray rather introverted and stand-offish characters, who may not be the easiest to read. But those are clear character traits, not failures on the actor's side. The rest of the cast is solid too, but they don't get much chance to shine. The film keeps a strong focus on the two leads, and luckily, they are both excellent.
With a film like Bus Stop, which revolves around a somewhat taboo relationship, it's crucial to avoid any unnecessary or unintended shock value and let the relationship evolve in the most natural and logical manner possible. People who won't accept the premise are unlikely to be persuaded by the film, I tend to be a little less stringent about social conventions, especially when they stand in the way of people who clearly belong together. And that's exactly where Mi-yeon Lee nails this film. I never doubted the attraction between these two people, which is why it wasn't hard to root for their relationship.
I'm not sure why Bus Stop remained under the radar, as similar films did manage to make a name for themselves. Maybe it's because people with a soft spot for South Korean films were looking to quench very different cravings, while those who liked the more challenging Japanese dramas didn't bother to look for any South Korean counterparts. Whatever the reason, it's a real shame this film got buried so quickly. The stylish presentation, the refined pacing, and layered performances support a smart and well-balanced drama that isn't afraid to confront the audience with some challenging questions. A hidden gem.