When attending the AFM in Santa Monica, I often find myself with down time where I don’t see anything on the schedule I recognize, so I take a chance on what seems like the most interesting title coming up in the next round of screenings. This usually does not yield great results (my attempts to make it through Toho’s YO-YO GIRL COP failed after about 30 minutes) but sometimes you can find something great, or at the very least something you like, among the multitude of unknown movies screening there. Based on the description, I thought I take a liking to RADIO STAR Jun-Ik Lee’s follow-up to his 2005 South Korean megahit, THE KING AND THE CLOWN. Simple premise finds a washed-up 80s rocker Joong-Hoon Park and devoted longtime manager Sung-kee Ahn taking an afternoon DJ gig on a small radio station, which, no surprise here, takes off. But RADIO STAR is not really a film about surprises or having a completely original plot, because it’s really a character piece. These two men almost have no one but each other; while it’s never acknowledged, they’re really best friends who happen to have this artist/manager working relationship. Park’s long-faded rock star never quite grasps why he isn’t getting the big gigs he thinks he deserves, while Ahn struggles the best he can to please him and get the jobs he can. Both stars shared the best actor awards at this year’s Korean Oscars and while Park is excellent, it’s Ahn who really makes the movie. He makes this character so warm and human that your primary rooting interest is in him, not his client. This is a guy who will only look at the up, positive side of things (no matter how down they really are) and you’re with him 100%. His enthusiasm, even if it’s forced at times, is there because he wants it to be, because he wants there to be success and happiness all around and Ahn really does a wonderful job inhabiting this character. What’s particularly humorous about this actor pairing is that Ahn and Park played characters on opposite sides of the law in Myung-se Lee’s 1999 classic NOWHERE TO HIDE, so to see them as allies here is especially amusing.
But to me, one of the real charms about RADIO STAR is its setting. I love radio. I grew up with a radio in my room and would spend most nights listening to every night until I went to sleep and on those rare occasions when I would do my homework (or even when I wasn’t, which was often). To this day I love radio, although I’m more attuned to freeform radio than anything commercial efforts, and both internet radio and online broadcasts are a joy to listen to (check out some of the links on the side). I can’t afford satellite radio just yet (and I’m waiting for the dust to settle on the Sirius/XM merger, anyway) but from what I’ve heard it’s always been a blast (especially considering the talent involved, meaning the old-time jocks being given a second chance), although NPR and the like leaves me cold (though I understand the appeal). Mainly I just love to hear good music (especially if it’s new to me) presented in an affable (but not obnoxious) manner and RADIO STAR gets that vibe. It doesn’t just want to be a good movie, it wants to be a good movie about radio, a respectful homage to the art form (and it is an art form) and the occasional magic of radio. Park’s radio show, a disaster at first, begins to take off and with it comes the love and support of the community, and while this is kind of a movie fantasy version of a successful radio show, this part of the fantasy really works in context. RADIO STAR may not be the best movie ever made about radio (I’m thinking there really is only one great film ever made about the subject, that being RADIO DAYS. Am I wrong on that?), but its love and respect for it is another reason why it’s so winning. This is one film with its heart in the right place.
As I said before, RADIO STAR is nothing more than a crowd pleaser, but it’s a crowd pleaser done right, and it leads me to wonder just what it is they’re doing over there in South Korea that we’re not here. South Korean cinema has seen a renaissance of sorts over the last decade, making a slew of first-rate films and even a masterpiece or two (thank you, Kim-Ki Duk) and what particularly impresses me is how South Korean commercial cinema has some of the most entertaining comedies, action movies, romantic dramas, and just flat-out popular entertainments over the last few years. Sure there are a few clunkers here and there, but the hits-to-misses ratio on South Korean films has been surprisingly successful. I can only assume that their filmmaking system is not as bogged down in meetings and marketing executives as ours is and that the filmmakers have more say in the final product (I could be wrong, however). Either way, South Korea is helping to keep cinema fun and exciting and even an otherwise nominal picture like RADIO STAR is helping to do its part. Small and unasuming, it's a little winner.