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Korea Blog: The American Dream Dies in Los Angeles in Bae Chang-Ho’s “Deep Blue Night”

Speeding through the desert in a convertible, blasting “Highway Star” on the radio: as much appeal as that fantasy has held for Americans, it’s held even more for non-Americans. Such a scene opens Deep Blue Night (깊고 푸른 밤), a Korean film shot entirely in the US and intensely, even grimly concerned with the broader notion of the “American dream.” At the wheel of the car — incongruously, not an American classic like a Mustang or a Corvette, but a Mercedes — is a Korean man of about thirty. In the passenger’s seat is a girl, another essential element of the fantasy, but before long the man will have abandoned her in Death Valley, having roughed her up, relieved her of an envelope full of cash and, deaf to her entreaties, continued on his way. What looked like a simple living of the dream turns out to be part of a mission before which morality is clearly no object.

The man’s name is Baek Ho-bin, and Los Angeles is the destination of a months-long journey that began in his homeland. From there he first made his way to Mexico, then crossed the border into San Diego, where he met the young lady, a fellow Korean, whom he left in the desert. In Los Angeles he connects with another Korean woman, a bartender who introduces herself only as “Jane.” An American citizen, Jane runs a side business entering into sham green-card marriages in exchange for money, just the service for a man like Ho-bin eager to bring his wife and unborn child over from Korea. In time she lets Ho-bin live in her hillside house, and even sets him up with a job at a convenience store. That the cynical operator eventually develops genuine feelings for the handsome rogue may at first seem like a cliché straight out of a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — whom Ahn Sung-ki, a child star in the 1950s and now an icon of Korean cinema, resembles in the role of Ho-bin.

Ahn looks and acts most like Gere as he appears in movie that certainly doesn’t count as romantic comedy, but does count among the underrated Los Angeles movies of the 1980s: Jim McBride’s American remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which is more respectable than it sounds. Whereas most American versions of foreign films lighten up the originals, McBride’s Breathless darkens Godard’s debut down, replacing its doomed romantic flair with a nihilistic seediness befitting the change of setting. It also swaps the nationalities of the main characters: Jean Seberg’s Patricia becomes Valérie Kaprisky’s French UCLA student Monica, and Jean-Pierre Belmondo’s Michel becomes Gere’s murderous drifter Jesse. Each in his own way, both Jesse and Ho-bin are archetypes of the aggressive young man in America, the former native-born and full of aimless vitality, the latter a new arrival on the make. Neither show any compunction when dealing — sexually, violently, or both — with those in the way.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.