The first sip of Coffee Noir: Black Brown may be slightly bitter. Given the film’s unusual tone, it’s hard to orient yourself at first, and to figure out exactly what you’re watching. It’s described as an “action/comedy/noir,” but that isn’t very helpful. Its humor is bizarre (almost Itami-esque), but subtly delivered. It has an unusually large cast of characters with outsized personality traits. But at the same time, there’s a quiet intensity to the film that sometimes catches you off guard.
In one sense, it can certainly be described as a high-concept comedy. The upscale cafe Black Brown is plunged into crisis when the national government declares coffee dangerously addictive and harmful to one’s health. Laws are passed to ban the substance, and a date is set after which anyone selling or drinking coffee will be arrested and harshly punished. But Black Brown is run by serious coffee lovers, and it has no intention of complying with laws that it considers unjust. At the same time as it prints new menus featuring a selection of teas and fruit lattes, it quietly starts preparing for an underground business that will be conducted late at night, and in secret.
It’s an amusing and pointed satire, that lampoons the government’s eagerness to interfere in our personal lives, and the way that corruption always seems to go hand in hand with moral crusades. But it turns out, that isn’t even the most interesting thing in this film. That distinction belongs to the main character Juwon, played (brilliantly) by Jo Soo-hyang (Wild Flowers). It’s established pretty early on that Ju-won is immensely competent, and totally fearless. She knows how to handle just about any difficult personality, but at the same time, she’s smart enough to understand when to swallow her pride in order to gain some strategic advantage. Her employees’ devotion to her is absolute and unquestioned, and while watching the film, I kind of wished that I could work for her too. Unexpectedly, and in a totally serious way, the film presents a fascinating portrait of leadership.
More generally, if there’s anyone who wishes to understand why South Korea will one day rule the world, one could do worse than to study the character of Ju-won. (I’m joking... or maybe not?) For me she embodies the impressive but slightly alarming competence of young generation Koreans. It doesn’t seem healthy to be so efficient and professional, but somehow she comes across as highly likeable at the same time.
With three features to date, director Chang Hyun-sang has quietly built up a distinctive filmography, with each work significantly different from the one that precedes it. His second film Kissing Cousin, a much more straightforward story about two cousins who can’t stop themselves from falling in love with each other, was a relaxed drama that grew steadily more emotional as the film progressed. Coffee Noir, meanwhile, is a complete contrast in mood and expression, but this film too ultimately succeeds thanks to memorable characters and strong acting. Some may question Chang’s decision to turn in a more somber direction towards the latter part of the film, rather than push the outrageousness up as far as it will go. But the world he has created in this film is completely unique, and perhaps even worthy of a sequel.