From the moment In-gu arrives to spend a few days at a beachside guesthouse on Jeju Island, he looks annoyed and uncomfortable. It is off season, so there is hardly anyone around, but he is given strict rules of conduct and warned not to make any noise at night. He seems unsatisfied with his room, and with the local eating options. But the source of his annoyance becomes clear later: In-gu is the ex-boyfriend of the guesthouse owner’s wife. He’s not interested in vacation – instead, he wants to confront her, and get some answers about their past.
What looks sure to become a deeply awkward situation is then given a twist, by a stroke of coincidence. There are two other women staying at the same guesthouse: Chae-yoon and Ha-seo. The flirtatious Ha-seo, drawn to this place for its reputation as a surfing haven, is disappointed to learn that there aren’t many people around at this time of year. Chae-yoon is more introspective, and seems happy to just relax and do some casual sightseeing. But she is in for an unexpected surprise. It turns out that the guesthouse owner Jeong-bong was her former work colleague in Seoul, years earlier. And from the way they act around each other, it seems like it was more than a simple work relationship.
It has become a trend in Korean independent cinema these days to set stories in guesthouses (other examples from the past six months include Zhang Lu’s Ode to the Goose and director Choi Hyun-young’s Korean-Japanese co-production Memories of a Dead End). The guesthouses in these films serve as spaces for temporary escape (or for the owners, a more permanent one) from the stress and social commitments of the city, but in Passing Summer it is also a place where unresolved feelings and relationships from the past are brought out into the open. In this way, what begins as a relaxed and even slightly dull story gradually starts to heat up, as emotions rise to the surface.
Director Cho Sung-kyu holds an unusual place within the Korean filmmaking community. After working for years as a producer/distributor, he is now a highly prolific director in his own right. But the films he makes are neither edgy like most independent films, nor highly calculated like most commercial films. There is an almost radical ordinariness to his stories, in which well-known actors play perfectly commonplace characters with everyday wants and ambitions. Events onscreen unfold slowly and naturally, as they do in real life. It sounds like it should be boring, but it’s not – there is a warmth and sympathy and gentle humor in his best work that is very appealing.
Ultimately Passing Summer is about those unresolved memories and stories from our past that we carry around inside us, without ever showing to the outside world. Rather than romanticize them, director Cho presents them on a very human level. Yet one also feels his sense of affection for these characters, their various flaws and contradictions in particular. In this way, it’s a feel-good film, without ever losing its sense of realism.