Filmmaker Kwak Jae-yong fears that melodrama is a dying genre.
“I used to love watching Hollywood love stories — they were one of the things that sustained me during my youth,” says the 58-year-old director in an interview with The Japan Times. “But now, Hollywood seems far less interested in melodrama, because that’s not where the money is going. Science fiction extravaganzas and stories about social injustice, murder and intrigue and, of course, action thrillers are the money-makers in Hollywood.
“But outside the U.S., it’s another story. Surprisingly, the British are still making them. And thankfully, East Asians are still crazy about hankie-wringing melodrama.”
Kwak should know. As the maestro of Asian melodrama, he is famed for having rewritten the rules of the Asian love story with “My Sassy Girl” in 2001, which broke box-office records in his home country of South Korea and became a media phenomenon in Japan. (It was also later remade for Hollywood with the same title by Yann Samuell).
In 2008, Kwak made his first Japanese-language film, casting Haruka Ayase as the heroine in “Boku no Kanojo wa Saibogu” (“Cyborg She”). In 2014, he came out with his first Chinese film, a sequel to “My Sassy Girl” called “Meet Miss Anxiety.”
Kwak’s latest, “Kaze no Iro” (“Colors of Wind”) marks his second Japanese-language vehicle. The film can be described as a tall glass of pure, undiluted Kwak-style melodrama, requiring two hankies at least. Starring Yuki Furukawa and Takemi Fujii as star-crossed lovers separated by a tragedy and reunited in Hokkaido, “Colors of Wind” is as much a tribute to the tradition of melodrama as it is to northern Japan.
“In 2010 I was traveling through a wintry Hokkaido and was struck by the otherness of the place, unlike anywhere I had seen before,” Kwak explains. “Of course, it snows in South Korea as well, but the snow in my country isn’t beautiful at all. Whereas in Hokkaido, the snow was lovely and it actually felt warm to me.
“Incidentally, the people there are very warm too, unlike the people in Tokyo. In Tokyo it’s difficult to get anything done and everyone is so rigid and disciplined. In Hokkaido the rules are loose and people are relaxed. The whole place has a unique flavor that’s great for movie-making.”
Kwak adds that he got the title “Kaze no Iro” from a Hokkaido production company that helped him with the location work.
“Hokkaido companies tend to have nature-themed names, and to me that seemed so romantic and perfect for the movie. Inspiration abounds in this place. More foreign filmmakers should go and work in Hokkaido!”
Not all of “Colors of Wind” is set in Kwak’s beloved northern Japan (specifically, Sapporo, Otaru, Abashiri and the Shiretoko Peninsula). At the beginning of the story the protagonist, Ryo (Yuki Furukawa), is in Tokyo, shell-shocked after the sudden death of his girlfriend, Yuri (Takemi Fujii).
After recalling the happy days of their relationship, Ryo decides to start afresh by becoming a magician’s apprentice. But in this new life, he still feels dogged by ghosts. Two years ago, a magician disappeared after an underwater trick gone awry — a magician who looks just like him and has almost the same name: Ryu. Could Ryu be Ryo’s doppelganger?
To find out, Ryo travels to Hokkaido, a place where Yuri had been hankering to go. She had told him that if something should pull them apart, they were sure to “meet again” there, and made a significant remark about the ice floe in Hokkaido.
Ryo reasons that if he has a double, then Yuri could have one too. Sure enough, he meets Aya (Fujii, in a double role), who looks exactly like Yuri and happens to be Ryu’s former girlfriend. Ryo and Aya become lovers, but each are haunted by their past loves and confused about their own identities.
Most of the lovers’ story unfolds against the backdrop of Hokkaido’s famed ice floe and snow-capped mountains, while Tokyo is deployed as the stage for Ryu/Ryo’s work as magicians, and for Ryo to check in with Yuri’s aunt Kanae (Yoshiko Nakada), who supplies Yuri’s family history and personal details.
“We started filming the Hokkaido scenes in March,” says Kwak. “Everyone told me it might be too late to shoot the ice floe from the coastline, and they were right. It didn’t help that due to climate change, coastal water temperatures were higher than we expected. To catch the ice floe, I had to get the cameras far out to sea, and for that I relied on drones. This whole process was a revelation for me, and I could see why so many directors are now using them.”
Despite the new technology, and the fact that “Colors of Wind” is set in the present day, much about it feels retro.
“It must be the references,” says Kwak, laughing.
Indeed, Kwak scatters 20th-century cultural pointers in the frames and dialogue, like W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel “The Moon and Sixpence” and the album cover of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” Unabashed homage is paid to “Leon,” with certain key scenes composed in the exact same way as those in Luc Besson’s 1994 mega-hit. Tokyo Tower, completed in 1958, also makes frequent appearances, as does Tokyo’s last remaining tram — the Toden Arakawa Line — as well as the Sapporo streetcar.
“Call me old-fashioned,” says Kwak, “but I do think the melodrama benefits a lot from old cultural references and icons, because they evoke memories from another time. And memories — whether they’re shared by the audience or not — form part of a collective experience that’s relevant to us all.”
“Kaze no Iro” (www.kaze-iro.jp — Japanese ) opens in cinemas on Jan. 26.
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