This review contains a spoiler. You will be warned before you have a chance to read it. If you do not wish to have a crucial plot point revealed, simply skip to the next paragraph when you reach the warning...
Young-Sae is the best dancer in Korea. Or at least he used to be. There was a time when he competed against the best of the best on Korea's finest dance floors. But then one day his nemesis Hyun-soo decided he was tired of being second best. He made sure Young-Sae met with a little accident. Young-Sae's knee was damaged and he lost his dance partner to Hyun-soo. Now he's a bum living in a crummy apartment, and his knee is still not back to normal.
Then Young-Sae's friend and manager steps in. He has arranged for a new partner for Young-Sae. A young girl named Chae-min, "imported" from a small village in China. Young-Sae and Chae-min will have to enter into a fake marriage, in order for Chae-min to be able to stay in Korea.
Chae-min arrives, they fill out the proper papers, Young-Sae sets her up in his apartment, and then he discovers the truth. It turns out that Chae-min never left China, instead her sister Chae-rin took her place. Chae-rin is a sweet young girl, barely 18 years old (though she looks like she could be 12), with no prior dance experience. Young-Sae's first reaction is to send her back, but then he starts to feel sorry for her, and eventually he accepts the challenge. In three months he'll have to teach Chae-rin to dance. Meanwhile the couple still has to keep up the appearance of being married, a situation complicated by the fact that two immigration agents are on to their deceit.
Young-Sae and Chae-rin work hard on their dance moves, but they haven't heard the last from Hyun-soo. He's not about to let Young-Sae reclaim the title as king of the dance floor.
For a little over an hour "Innocents Steps" is the perfect romantic film. The kind you can cuddle up and watch with the love of your life.
Moon Geun-young is adorable as Chae-rin, so utterly charming and captivating that it's impossible not to fall for her. Her wide-eyed innocence is actually so appealing that it allows the film to sell the relationship between Young-Sae and Chae-rin, even though he looks like he's 20 years older than her. Their scenes together are nothing short of magical. Best of all, the film shows great patience, as it moves the two would-be lovers closer and closer to each other.
Add to that some fantastic dance and rehearsal sequences and you've got a winning formula that should bring the house down. But here's the thing... the magic only last for 65 minutes. After that everything goes horribly wrong.
(BEGINNING OF SPOILER)
It turns out that the whole thing has been a set-up. Unbeknownst to both of them Young-Sae has been training Chae-rin to be the new partner for bad guy Hyun-soo. Later his henchmen make sure Young-Sae's knee is ruined once and for all. Suddenly Chae-rin is treated like a whore, who has to dance for whom ever pays. It reminded me of the way Demi More is passed around in "Indecent Proposal" and that certainly left a bad taste. Young-Sae is forced to watch from the sidelines as Hyun-soo once again wins the big championship with a dancer trained by him.
(END OF SPOILER)
Watching the third act unfold, I felt a sense of betrayal that I haven't felt in a long time. Why the hell would anybody turn this beautiful butterfly of a movie into an ugly larva? Shouldn't it be the other way around?
The filmmakers' unfathomable miscalculation is nothing short of disastrous. Imagine a "Dirty Dancing" where Patrick Swayze breaks his leg and ends up blowing his brains out, leaving Jennifer Grey alone and pregnant, hooked on coke, and you'll have some idea of just how wrong the whole thing feels. Everything pure and true is squeezed out of our two protagonists, in a way that makes it impossible for them to recover.
All films test the growth of their hero in the end of the second act, but this here is just too mean, too cruel and too real. It doesn't go together with the mood established earlier in the film, and it's highly unsatisfying. Naturally everything takes a turn for the better in the end, but it's too little too late and the film never gets back on its feet again. It even goes as far as letting the bad guys get away with everything. They remain unpunished and unscathed, while our heroes are left to pick up the pieces of their ruined lives.
The film is also missing that crucial big finish. We need that "Dirty Dancing" or "Strictly Ballroom" payoff in the end to send us home with a smile. Young-Sae and Chae-rin don't get to dance together for real. How the hell can you make a dance film where the two leads never get a chance to show what they've worked so hard for during rehearsals?
I usually don't have a problem with bad endings. In fact I love them. Nor do I object to the serious tone that always sneaks into the third act of the Korean comedies or light romantic films. "Innocents Steps" could and should have been a masterpiece, but the turn of events that lead to the horrible third act is unforgivable. Perhaps a second viewing will soften my harsh view of this film, but I doubt it. Next time I watch it, I'll probably hit the stop button at about 64:50.
That way everybody will live happily ever after. As they should.