Antique Bakery is the second feature from South Korean director Min Kyu-dong to gain distribution here in the UK. The first, Memento Mori, found its way onto DVD in 2005 at a time when interest in all things Asian and ‘Extreme’ was at its peak. Ring and The Grudge had exerted their influence and soon enough the shelves were flooded with all manner of Asian horror pics irrespective of their quality. (We should know – the Digital Fix has covered more than enough of them over the years.) Memento Mori, however, was something a little different. It was a sequel to Whispering Corridors, the most successful South Korean movie of 1998 and the instigator of a whole series of high school-set horror pictures. Yet whilst it could have rested on the laurels of the original and deliver only the most perfunctory of thrills, Min and his co-writer and co-director Kim Tae-yong decided to give their particular tale a pronounced lesbian element. Practically unheard of in mainstream South Korean cinema at the time of its release in 1999, their choice of such a taboo subject arguably hindered their chances at the box office, though nowadays Memento Mori is considered as something of a national modern classic and deservedly so.
The change in attitude can be partially signified in Antique Bakery’s success. Min dealt once again with homosexuality for this picture, only this time found himself with a much bigger immediate audience. Indeed, within two weeks of its opening in South Korea in November 2008 the film had already enticed more than a million cinemagoers and now stands as one of the country’s most successful movies ever. With that said, Antique Bakery shares only a thematic connection with Memento Mori. Rather than horror the film offers up lightweight comedy of a certain buffoonish charm albeit with some darker undercurrents thrown in and sourced from a Japanese manga series. Written by Fumi Yoshinaga and published between 1999 and 2002, Antique Bakery had already inspired both a live-action TV series and a twelve-episode anime in its home country before Min started production. Nevertheless, Min stayed true to his source, and this despite the switch in location.
The fact that Antique Bakery had been subject to not one, but two television adaptations isn’t all that surprising as there is something of the sitcom about it. In a nutshell, the eponymous bakery has been set up by Kim Jin Hyeok (Joo Ji Hoon) using part of his family’s fortune as a way of attracting a wife. He likes his “meat and booze” not the “girly shit” meaning all of those cakes and pastries are just a means to an end. Years ago, whilst in high school, he rejected the advances of a homosexual schoolmate, Min Seon Woo (Kim Jae Wook), who has since gone on to become a self-proclaimed “gay of demonic charm” (no man, excepting Kim, can resist him) and one of the finest chefs in the country. Needless to say, the two end up working together and are eventually joined by a former amateur boxer and a childhood friend of Kim’s whose family used to work his family as servants. Add to this a selection of colourful regular customers and you have all you could need for an extended sitcom cast. The decision to set the vast majority of the film within the four walls of the bakery only adds to the effect.
During its worst moments Antique Bakery indulges such elements, presenting a broad cartoonish humour that plays on the most obvious aspects of this set-up: the sexual tension between Kim and Min; the eccentricities of the clientele. Director Min is also guilty of an overly fussy style that involves fast edits, fidgety camerawork and flights of fancy. We even get musical montages with hints of Busby Berkeley and Bollywood. Admittedly things are never quite so overt as, say, in the films of Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko), though you do wish that things would calm down a little. For when Antique Bakery does calm down it improves immensely and, slowly, becomes a more interesting picture.
Every character, though specifically Kim, comes with a backstory and it is here where the intrigue sets in. Once again all manner of styles and methods have a tendency to be thrown into the mix – dream sequences, flashbacks, nods to the horror movie – though they’re much better handled than the comic side of things and make for the richer concoction. Kim, for example, was kidnapped as a child and force-fed cake by his captor – a man who remains at large and whose identity remains a mystery. It’s the untangling of these various strands which proves most satisfying and ultimately provides Antique Bakery with its impetus. With that said, the darker elements and more comic moments never feel like they’re competing. For all the fuss Min still maintains a pleasing lightness of touch, while his four central performers cope with the tonal shifts just fine. And so even though, like Kim, I prefer the “meat and beer” to the “girly shit” when it comes to this film, there’s no denying its obvious qualities.
Just over four years since its South Korean release Antique Bakery finally reaches the UK courtesy of Terracotta Distribution. Unfortunately they’ve only been able to get their hands on a print that is in the wrong ratio. The film should be presented in 2.35:1 but arrives here in 1.78:1 form – and it’s hard not to notice the cropping throughout, especially when faces have a tendency to be cut in half. It’s a shame as otherwise this would be a perfectly decent offering complete with clean image, optional English subtitles and, save for the odd bout of edge enhancement, no major concerns. The soundtrack, meanwhile, comes in a simple but unproblematic DD2.0 mix. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout, the score is handled well and there are no shortcomings to speak of.
Of the special features the main presence is a 34-minute ‘making of’ featurette. For the most part this offers up B-roll footage on the set, though it’s interspersed with some interview footage and allows for the occasional insight. (As with the main feature English subtitles are optional.) Elsewhere the disc also finds room for a music video of F.T. Island performing ‘Love Is’ (which contains clips from the film in its correct 2.35:1 ratio), a gallery of production stills, the original Korean trailer and TV spot, plus some cross-promotional items for Terracotta Distribution. The disc opens with trailers for The King of Pigs, Petty Romance and Hansel & Gretel.
One of the most successful South Korean movies of all time.