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[Herald Review] ‘High Society’ has intriguing premise, but weak payoff

Byun Huk has a reputation for style, specifically when it comes to the mise-en-scene of his films. His latest piece is no exception, delving into the art world and playing up the visuals in this depiction of a middle-class couple striving for acceptance into “high society.”

The film follows its protagonists, respected university professor Jang Tae-jun (Park Hae-il) and his wife, Oh Su-yeon (Soo Ae), an established curator at a prestigious art gallery. The upwardly mobile husband is on his way to a political career, and the wife aims to be the director of the gallery.

The visuals glimmer before the couple like mirages, symbolizing the elusive glamor of the world they wish to inhabit. We see this when Su-yeon climbs a staircase, and again when Tae-jun runs along a path leading to the skyscrapers of Seoul.

“High Society” (Lotte Entertainment)
“High Society” (Lotte Entertainment)

Visual symbolism is even more prominent in the works of Su-yeon’s former lover, video artist Shin Ji-ho (played by Lee Jin-wook). This eventually plays a part in the film’s climax.

Apart from the director’s visual style, the premise is also interesting. The trailer promised a look at the seemingly glamorous but putrid nature of the super-rich world its characters aspire to, as in recent films “Veteran” and “Inside Men.”

But the film shows the perspective of people who just linger on the edge of that inner circle.

“I know how much how you’ve worked,” Su-yeon is told when her ambitions are thwarted. “But all that doesn’t compare with a drop of blood in his veins.” In the end, she loses out to the son of a powerful businessman, Han Yong-seok.

The black comedy aspect was surprisingly fun -- Yoon Je-moon, in the role of Han, steals almost every scene he is in. Of course, the film makes it clear that he is the most unpleasant human being in the film -- a point that is accentuated by a somewhat disgusting sex scene -- but Yoon adds a desperately needed humorous element, of which there was a shortage in this flick.

But from a story perspective, the payoff was weak. Byun manages to create a number of interesting characters who could have taken the plot somewhere, yet it goes nowhere.

The subplot about Tae-jun and his assistant -- one that interweaves lust, respect, ambition and distortion -- could have been more interesting if it had been developed further. The characters and premise were intriguing, but in the end they come across as one-dimensional devices to propel the plot forward.

The result? The film goes the route of a standard Hollywood ending.

“High Society” looks good, its acting is great, and it could have told a thought-provoking story, yet it ends up telling one that is all too familiar. It is not a bad film, but it is also not one that really offers any new perspective.

The movie opens Aug. 29.

By Yoon Min-sik