Make Yourself at Home
Director: Soopum Sohn
Cast: Song Hye-kyo, Arno Frisch, Athena Currey, Rob Yang
Please note: The below content may contain spoiler.
Korean director Soopum Sohn's first feature film Make Yourself at Home made its debut at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2008. One may wonder why a thriller starring one of the most beloved and renowned Korean actresses Song Hye-kyo would end up nowhere and receive little applause since it came out two years ago? However, anyone who has seen the film would probably agree that, with a mediocre script and lackluster direction by a fledgling director, the mixed reaction is actually quite an appropriate and expected outcome.
The story is set in a upper class suburban area in New Jersey. Sookhy (Song Hye-kyo), a Korean bride who just arrived the US, has a difficult time getting used to her new life with her American born Korean husband Peter (Rob Yang) and his snobbish mother (June Kyoto Lu). Sookhy then meets Peter's neighbors, a very sweet and passionate couple named John (Arno Frisch) and Julie (Athena Currey). Their hospitality soon breaks the ice and they become good friends. However, Peter's life is cut short by being accidently poisoned by some expired mushrooms provided by Julie, and his depressed mother also commits suicide right after. Sookhy, without any friends and relatives in the US, decides to "make herself at John and Julie's home". Her devastating behavior is slowly changing the position of everyone in the family...
Soopum Sohn, a Korean filmmaker who received his university education in the US, made his name famous when his short film was selected by Cannes in 2002. He is primarily known as a cinematographer and has worked on films like Kang Yi-kwan's Sakwa (starring Moon So-rye). Make Yourself at Home marked his directorial debut. As an American trained filmmaker, Sohn's style is rather conventional and conservative, which from my own experience as a filmmaker, is no different from a lot of other film school graduated filmmakers I have worked with. No matter his composition, the use of sound effects or editing style, everything shows traces of classical Hollywood approach, which makes the film look exactly like a television drama or B~C movies. The tedious framing and dimly lit images, together with a predictable storyline, unfortunately just fail to capture the attention of the audience starting from the first minute.
It is a story of suspense and fantasy, yet both areas don't seem to appeal. As a suspense, although the beginning of the story touches upon elements of shamanism, when it progresses, nothing interesting does unfold, all we get to see is a mysterious wind chime hidden in a weird pillow. As a fantasy, the plot holes are simply too obvious that greatly hinder the credibility of the story and make the relationship among the characters less convincing than they are supposed to be. That's why when the real climax of the "face-off" phenomenon arrives, it just feels like an expected showoff, rather than an emotional showdown. It inevitably makes the audience believe that the filmmaker first had this ending and then went backward to construct everything before that, which is certainly not a very good and efficient way to write a script. Certainly, the social context, that is, the critique of immigrant's life and struggle, is also very superficial and fails to shape the characters as well.
As a thriller, the biggest shock for the audience is how Sohn managed to successfully invite A-list celebrity Song Hye-kyo to star in a ultra low budget B~C movie. Song's filmography proves clearly that she is very skeptical about the film she wants to do. Since she first rose to stardom with the regional hit Endless Love in 2000, she has only appeared in two films since then (not including the two others she is committed to do after this film). What really attracted Song would remain a mystery to many, is it merely because of its "American movie" label? Or is there any story behind?
Song Hye-kyo's charm is no doubt the biggest asset of the film, which is proven by her ability to garner a lot more attention for the film than it actually deserves, but on the other hand, it also hurts the film quite a bit. I am not sure if it's because of the director's lack of experience or simply the flaw of the script, Song is just too adorable and lovely to be a little devil who is good at utilizing her sexual trait to usurp power. She is just too nice and cute after all! Other actors in the cast are also mediocre. I don't really know if I should see it as a psychological thriller or fantasy, since as the former genre, the behaviors of the characters are too crazy to be feasible, while as the latter genre, what they do are too ambiguous to deliver any surprise.
Low budget isn't an excuse for poor execution. Good idea isn't always costly. The critical error of Make Yourself at Home is the filmmaker's seemingly backward approach in conceiving the story, that is, he first came up with a "face-off" ending which he thought is cool, and then made up the characters and the rest to fit in. The ultimate result is a story that is incoherent and characters that the audience couldn't care much.
If you are interested in this film, do check it out at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March 2010.
Reviewed by: Kantorates