Five friends escape to the country, before having to escape from the country in Park Chong-won’s black dramedy.
I’ve always been a city guy. Don’t get me wrong, I love being in nature, but in small amounts. A holiday here, or a weekend there. In that regard, I’m a lot like the five main characters of Park Chong-won’s Rainbow Trout. They are married couples Min-soo (Sol Kyung-gu) and Jung-hwa (Kang Soo-yeon), Byung (Kim Se-dong) and Young-sook (Lee Hang-na), and Jung-hwa’s little sister Se-hwa (Lee Eun-ju). In other respects, I really hope I’m nothing like them.
They drive up to the mountains, escaping Seoul, to reconnect with their old friend, former playwright-turned-fish farmer Chang (Hwang In-sung), who was once in a relationship with Jung-hwa. At first things seem idyllic – a perfect break from it all – complete with fresh sashimi, gorgeous scenery and no cell signal to distract you. But it quickly starts to sour for Jung-hwa when Chang brings up their relationship, for Se-hwa when a peeping tom named Tae-joo (Kim In-kwon) takes a creepy, stalkerish liking to her and for the men when they run afoul of two local hunters. It’s not long before their perfect weekend away becomes anything but.
Rainbow Trout’s most striking feature is in the way it plays with genre, pretty much from the first scene. The film juggles a number of different styles – from romantic drama, to black comedy, to Straw Dogs-style rural thriller and then back again – and does so without really skipping a beat or seeming off in any way. The story progresses so naturally from one scene to the next that you don’t realise where you are until you’ve arrived. The narrative might begin with a rain-soaked romantic scene between Chang and Se-hwa and end with Byung and Min committing (potential) manslaughter, all while commenting on their pseudo-macho personalities and it all flows in a logical and coherent way that’s extremely difficult to pull off.
It’s the sort of genre bait-and-switch you see all the time in Korean cinema, and Rainbow Trout in particular seemed to have paved the way for classics like The Quiet Family which revels in the inherent dark humour and isolating thrills that comes from holidaying in the middle of nowhere. All of this results in a film that’s never stuck in one gear for too long, leaving you on the edge of your seat throughout – never quite knowing just where the narrative will go. And considering the occasionally surprising way it handles the hunters, Chang and the city slickers out of their depth, the movie loves to serve up curveballs at select moment, for maximum effect.
The cast is also excellent throughout. The five leads are always switching between being relatable, likeable main characters and reprehensible self-obsessed jerks in a way that hits a little too close to home at times. Hwang In-sung’s Chang is arguably the least interesting, but this seems on purpose: while the city folks are loud and expressive, he’s reserved and doesn’t often let his true feelings out. Regardless, it makes for an ensemble that’s a joy to watch together.
Rainbow Trout is also not without its jabs at both urban and rural life, if they are more subdued than I would have imagined. It effectively boils down to “everyone is an asshole, but in different ways”, and I do appreciate that it never really picks sides in the argument. Like any good black comedy, everyone absolutely sucks in their own way, and the film is much more enjoyable for it. Except I guess Young-sook. She was really chill throughout.
Verdict: Never quite as deep as it wants to be, Rainbow Trout is nevertheless a rollicking rollercoaster of genre, thrills and the occasional awkward laugh.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Sex: Implied only/10
Fish: Must be stressed out of their mind with all that splashing and fighting and drowning
Cold water: Raises that sexual stamina, apparently. But have they not heard of shrinkage?
Rainbow Trout (1999)
Director: Park Chong-won
Writer: Kim Dae-woo
Kang Soo-yeon – Jung-hwa
Sol Kyung-gu – Min-soo
Hwang in-sung – Chang
Kim Se-dong – Byung
Lee Hang-na – Young-sook
Lee Eun-ju – Se-hwa
Kim In-kwon – Tae-joo
Kim Roi-ha – Hunter
Kwon Tae-won – Hunter
Park Kil-soo – Another hunter