"I'm a man who likes meat and booze! What would I know about girly cake sh*t?"
Increasingly pressurised by his family to find a career, a life focus and settle down with a "nice" girl, Jin-hyuk (Ju Ji-hun) decides to open a cake shop/bakery; happy to tell anyone who cares to listen that his reason for choosing such a retail outlet is that "all the girls will go there”. Surrounding himself with all-male staff - Sun-woo (Kim Jae-wook), a chef who had a crush on Jin-hyuk in high school and now describes himself as “a gay man with demonic skills”; Gi-beom (Yu Ain), an ex-boxing champion; and Su-young (Choi Ji-ho), a clueless bodyguard - for reasons that soon become clear, Jin-hyuk sets about making his bakery, ‘Antique’, a success in spite of the fact that cakes and pastries make him without fail physically vomit.
However, each of the men has a painful secret lurking from their past that has both prevented them from moving on with their respective lives and, in fact, has drawn them individually to Antique; and those secrets resolutely refuse to stay hidden…
While any film from any country or territory ultimately aims to be at least equal to, if not greater than, the sum of its parts, there are certain narrative and genre elements that by their very nature tend to draw specific audience demographics far more than others; with sustained brutality, graphically overt sexual content, realtionships that cannot lead to the standard idea of a nuclear family and somewhat sympathetic depictions of individuals who don’t adhere to a society’s moral compass largely topping the list around the world - even in some cases over the years having been deemed as ‘taboo’. The fact that Korean cinema has historically been subject to repeated constraints and severe censorship, of course, directly led not only to the predominance - from the Golden Age of Korean Cinema right through the Korean New Wave and beyond - of melodramas detailing ‘safe’, non-controversial and non-confrontational subject matter (politically, socially and/or sexually) but also to the almost obligatory underlining of narratives with traditional family values and even the often seen implication that those outside the moral ‘norms’ lead subversive and seditious lives that threaten to unbalance the very fabric of society.
So, I hear you cry/scream/shout, why the ‘Korean Cinema History 101’ lecture? Well, though political upheaval over the years and subsequent social stability have gradually allowed for a far greater freedom of speech in Korean cinema, let’s face it old habits do tend to die hard and, as such, films that layer their social commentaries and critiques within multi-focused narratives still have a far greater chance of succeeding in engaging a mass-market audience - as well as, obviously, making for a broader and more entertaining story, generally - and in the case of Antique Bakery that fact is one of its many strong points:
The very first scene of Antique Bakery transports us in flashback to Jin-hyuk and Sun-woo standing on a rooftop during their school days; with Sun-woo nervously unveiling his feelings of love and yearning for his high-school ‘friend’. Equally taken aback and abhorred by Sun-woo’s declaration, Ji-hyuk without hesitation swears profusely, rants homophobically and smashes an iced cake into Sun-woo’s face leaving Sun-woo (and the audience) in no doubt whatsoever of his true feelings towards him and everything he stands for.
Step forward to the present day and Jin-hyuk has (almost) become comfortable enough in his own skin and sure of his heterosexuality to allow himself to give Sun-woo the job of chef at Antique, in spite of the fact that he remembers their last altercation as clearly as if it was yesterday.
At this early stage of proceedings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Antique Bakery is little more than a comedy drama detailing long-held perceptions of, and classic blinkered reactions to, homosexuality - especially when combined with subsequent overtly camp yet humorous musical numbers and the individual story arc of Sun-woo himself - but if that’s your assumption you frankly could hardly be more wrong.
Yes, the character of Jin-hyuk does in part stand as a depiction of old-school Korean social values, morals and their gradual change but far more than that Antique Bakery actually uses his (initial) persona to astutely criticise the prejudices Sun-woo has had to face throughout his life as a gay man; combining them with the other main character arcs and various cinema genre elements to boldly state that the sins of those around us often tear us apart to a far greater degree than our own battles to come to terms with who we truly are.
I’ve already voiced my opinion that Antique Bakery is far more than just a deftly realised drama about homosexuality but that in itself is vastly over-simplified statement, to say the very least. For here we have comedy, romance, murder/mystery thriller and cathartic journey all rolled into one; all the while portrayed in a warm-hearted and genuinely funny manner.
Of these numerous genres, while each has an equally important parts to play in proceedings, the thriller elements are the glue that holds the others together, if you will, at the same time serving not only as Jin-hyuk's individual character arc; the catalyst propelling the narrative to its ultimate conclusion; and even the real reason behind his decision to open a bakery in the first place, but also allowing a genre extension into classic Korean cinema territory to ensure that Antique Bakery appeals to a far larger audience than would perhaps otherwise have been the case.
Moreover, though its massive importance isn't necessarily obvious until the full story is well underway, its place at the very hub of proceedings is nonetheless referenced from the outset; for those who care to look.
Ultimately, Antique Bakery gently but resolutely states the while it's vital that we are comfortable with who we are, on and below the surface, we each also deserve to be surrounded by people who accept us for that, unconditionally.
Cinematically, Antique Bakery is accomplished throughout. Scenes set inside the bakery itself in particular look utterly sumptuous; vibrant visuals and pastel colours adding an undeniable warmth to almost every frame and underlining the humour as well as fitting in perfectly with the more camp aspects of the narrative. Considering the fact that Min Kyu-dong co-directed high school horror 'Momento Mori' in 1999, his experience in merging thriller, romance and horror genres to detail tales of friendship, sexuality, same-sex love and souls 'haunted' by the past serves Antique Bakery incredibly well to the extent that if you were to try to consider which element is the most memorable, you’d be fairly hard pushed to come to a definitive conclusion.
However, if I was pushed I'd have to say that the superb use of horror imagery in the thriller segments of the film stood out above all for me.
Cast (Character… Actor):
Jin-hyuk… Ju Ji-hun
Sun-woo… Kim Jae-wook
Gi-beom… Yu Ain
Su-young… Choi Ji-ho
Initially appearing to simply be a warm and genuinely funny comedy that gently details themes of sexuality and acceptance, Antique Bakery nonetheless quickly proves itself to be so much more; deftly accenting numerous genres along its ultimately cathartic path.
The DVD edition reviewed here is the UK (Region 0) Terracotta Distribution single disc release. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby 2.0 and is well balanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature and in all of the DVD extras.
Director: Min Kyu-dong
Country of Origin: South Korea
Picture Format: PAL
Disc Format: DVD (1 Disc)
Region Code: 0
Duration: 107 minutes
Publisher: Terracotta Distribution
- 'Making of' Featurette
- Music Video
- TV Spot
- Stills Gallery