Whether you’re a die-hard Asian film fan or new to Korean Cinema, The London Korean Film Festival offers an excitingly varied bill. Screened as part of the festival, Gabi, a pretty absorbing film about overthrowing a king and the delights of coffee was just one of the nuggets on offer.
Based on a novel by Kim Tak-hwan called Nosea Gabi (which translates as Russian Coffee) Gabi explores the many myths surrounding King Goseng and his love of coffee. This film is ambitious and visually striking and from the very start you are transported into an atmosphere of beauty and malleable nostalgia thanks to some epic cinematography. The stunning aerial shots of a steam train racing across a beautiful barren landscape lead into some action scenes that would rival any good bond film. The pace and scale of the film is set out from the start and despite the film getting a little slow in places, it’s generally maintained with some great battle scenes alongside some subtly evocative interactions between the characters.
In these early scenes we are introduced to the central characters Danya and Illichi, lovers and a pretty tough duo, who are making their way together in Russia swindling gold and coffee from their victims. Beautifully portrayed by Joo Jin-Moo (Illichi) and Kim So-Yeon (Danya) this duo are captured by Russian soldiers and handed over to Japanese Officer Sadaka one pretty callous lady. They’re recruited into operation ‘Gabi’, with the aim of assassinating Korea Emperor Gojeng. As the film progresses we see the characters manipulated and played like puppets, trapped in a political web of deceit, but they are by no means weak drawing strength from their values. Danya becomes entangled in the world of the king whilst Illichi has her back and their values are tested to the limit. In a nutshell it’s a pretty gripping story told in way that can get a little convoluted and confusing at times but the strong characterisation and excellent acting does keep you compelled from start to finish.
One other thing of note about this film is the costumes. This film’s set in the turn of the 19th Century and the costumes are a little ambiguous as they do slip into looking slightly modern – think Dirty Dancing set in the 50’s but looking very 80’s territory. Danya looks striking in pencil skirts and blouses before adopting a traditional court outfit that in its simplicity further highlights her beauty and Illichi truly plays the part of hero in some pretty slick suits and hats. Sadaka’s styling is very 90’s power boss with a hint of Kill Bill, perfect for this seemingly heartless character. This film is an entertaining interpretation of a legendary story, not a historical re-enactment and the costumes, dramatic classical score, ambitious narrative are certainly bold but, it seems, the ambition behind this film, to captivate audiences, is bolder.
Gabi is a love story, a mystery, a political drama and a period piece, showing the power of relationships, aromas, ties and the force of ambition. Not perfect by any means, but if not taken too seriously this film is enjoyment with a capital ‘E’ and offers a striking cinematic experience that will no doubt provoke audiences to seek out what else Korean Cinema has to offer. A damn good ride in most cases it seems!