Summer Time (2001) Review

Summer Time (2001) Review

“Summer Time” Theatrical Poster

Director: Park Jae-Ho
Cast: Kim Ji-Hyeon, Choi Cheol-Ho, Ryu Soo-Young, Song Ok-Suk, Jeong-yun Bae, Choi Seong-Min, Yoon Yeong-Geol, Jang Sung-Won, Kim Sun-Hwa
Running Time: 103 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Holding the distinction of being the only time that Korea would remake a Filipino production, 2001’s Summer Time used Peque Gallaga’s erotic classic Scorpio Nights as its source material. Released in 1985, Gallaga’s production set itself against the backdrop of martial law that was imposed on the country under the Marcos regime, and the assassination of political rival Ninoy Aquino a couple of years earlier was still fresh in everyone’s minds. The story of a student activist who rents a room above the home of a security guard and his wife, a hole in the floorboards sees the student become a voyeur to the couple having sex each day, to the point where his urges lead him to visit the wife while the husband is away. Embarking on a dangerous affair, ultimately their antics lead to tragic consequences for all involved, and the production became a landmark in Filipino cinema (notably getting unrelated sequels in 1999 and 2022).

While at the time of writing in 2023 Korea and the Philippines may seem like worlds apart, a look back at their histories shows many similarities. Both suffered under dictator like regimes in the 70’s (Ferdinand Marcos/Park Chung-hee), both went through periods of martial law that led to violent uprisings (the EDSA Revolution in 1986/the Gwangju Massacre in 1980), and both saw political assassinations (the previously mentioned Ninoy Aquino/and Park Chung-hee himself was assassinated in 1979). As an interesting sidenote, both countries would also vote relatives of the dictatorships they’d lived under back into power decades later. In Korea Park Chung-hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye would become the first female president of South Korea from 2013 – 2017, while in the Philippines current president Bongbong Marcos is the only son of Ferdinand Marcos, voted into power in 2022 to the surprise of many.

The final movie of director Park Jae-ho, unlike Scorpio Nights, Summer Time was made when the events portrayed onscreen had the benefit of a significant period passing since they’d taken place. In 2001 the Korean film industry was at the beginning of a new golden era, the type of which hadn’t been since the 1960’s, spurred on by new directorial talent like Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Ji-woon. It’s always felt like there’s a very clear line when watching Korean productions from 2000 – 2002 in terms of which represent the type of cinema Korea would become known for over the next decade, and which are still firmly rooted in the 20th century. Director Jae-ho firmly belonged to the 1990’s style of filmmaking, with the 3 other productions he sat in the directors chair for being Poison (1997), The River Flows to Tomorrow (1996), and his directorial debut Liberated Madame 1990 (1990).

That’s not necessarily a negative, with the 90’s being a decade that Korean cinema revitalised itself, from being in the doldrums at the start of the decade, to breaking through onto the international stage by the end of it with 1999’s Shiri. With Summer Time the martial law era of Manila is swapped for the aftermath of the Gwangju Massacre, a tragedy which has been visited many times in Korean cinema, from 1996’s A Petal through to more recent productions like 2017’s A Taxi Driver. The story once more involves a student activist, this time one who’d taken part in the protests demanding democracy, and manages to flee to a rural village to escape the authorities. From there the narrative stays largely true to its source material, with him renting a room above a security guard and his wife, and through a hole in the floorboards he finds himself increasingly drawn to watching them have sex.

Bookended by scenes set in contemporary Seoul that see a Korean adoptee raised in the States looking for his birth parents, Ryu Soo-young (Steel Rain 2: Summit, The Attorney) plays double roles both as the adoptee in the present, and as the activist 20 years in the past. The casting of the wife is notable since it was considered big news when Summer Time was released, marking the acting debut of the recently disbanded (at the time) K-pop group Roo’ra member Kim Ji-hyeon. The present-day equivalent of a Blackpink member making their acting debut in a role involving copious amounts of nudity, while the squeaky-clean image K-pop members require today wasn’t quite as stringent in the early 2000’s, it was still considered surprising for Ji-hyeon to make a role like this one her debut. Rounding out the core trio that make up the main cast is Choe Cheol-ho (The Cursed Lesson, The Quiet Family) as the husband.

Watching Summer Time for the first time in 2023, there are certain scenes which invariably feel problematic. Chief amongst them being Soo-young’s initial engagement with Ji-hyeon. It’s clear that her marriage is a loveless one, with her days spent under lock and key in a slinky nightgown either dancing to vinyl records, or napping on the bed. When Cheol-ho comes home each day, he aggressively initiates intercourse from behind, while Ji-hyeon remains practically lifeless, not even bothering to open her eyes. It’s her detached demeanour that allows for Soo-young to enter the apartment when Cheol-ho drops his keys one day, and he initiates the same routine as her husband, which through today’s lens effectively means we watch him rape Ji-hyeon while she’s asleep. It’s only when he tries it a 2nd time and differs from the husband’s technique that Ji-hyeon opens her eyes, realising it’s not her husband she’s having sex with.

Soo-young’s response of “I’m sorry, it’s just that you’re so beautiful” feels like a classic example of victim blaming, and to gain any kind of enjoyment from Summer Time audiences will have to overcome the dated nature of such scenes. Awoken (both literally and metaphorically) from her dull existence under her controlling husband, Soo-young and Ji-hyeon embark on an affair mainly driven by lust, as they continue to meet while Cheol-ho is out at work, until the inevitable happens and dire consequences unfold for all involved.

Outside of the lead trio director Jae-ho creates a suppressive atmosphere towards women in the rural village in which its set. A male supervisor in a textile factory harasses an employee for a date, a mentally disabled villager waits quietly under a set of stairs so he can peek up women’s skirts, and an outside toilet has a hole in the wall that’s used to spy on women while they do their business. Such issues are presented not so much in a way which portrays them as needing to be addressed, but rather as part of everyday life that must be endured, despite knowing its wrong. It’s somewhat disheartening to see that, more than 20 years later, the ongoing problem in Korea of spy-cams being placed in women’s toilet cubicles is indicative that Jae-ho’s portrayal of such issues is as relevant today, as it was in the era which Summer Time is set. 

The production is kept watchable though in no small part due to Ji-hyeon’s daring performance, who fully embodies the role of bored housewife to sultry seductress, coming across as never less than convincing. Cheol-ho is equally effective as the husband, a tightly wound coil of rage who we learn is a disgraced police officer, forced to up and move to the rural village because of his misdeeds. Unfortunately both of their performances are offset by a rather wooden and stilted turn from Soo-young, who largely fails to convince in his role as the activist, and is only saved by the fact so many of his scenes rely more on the physical than effectively delivering lines. With the weight of being the main character on his shoulders, what should be an equal parts nuanced and intense portrayal instead feels rather dull and one-note.

 Summer Time doesn’t quite go as far as Scorpio Nights in its final denouncement, instead opting for a more dramatic approach which sees us back in the present day, with Soo-young coming to terms with learning the truth about his parents (although ironically, considering he has no photos of Cheol-ho or himself as the activist, presumably he never gets to know who his father is). Understandably Jae-ho’s last movie didn’t become a landmark of Korean cinema like its source material did for the Philippines, however it still manages to be a competent enough sexual drama, made all the rarer by the fact that as a genre it really no longer exists. Now, you’ll excuse me while I dig out my old Roo’ra CD’s.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10