Story: The well esteemed professor Yun Suk-young (Lee Byung-hun) regrets only one thing at his old age: To have lost his one and only true
love. He remembers the time during the year 1969. The country is covered with student protests everywhere aimed against the dictatorial
government. In the course of the protests many students drive out to the country in order to help the farmers with their work in the fields.
Having arrived in a village Suk-young actually wants to go back to Seoul as soon as possible, but since he wants to avoid having to face his father
he stays there nonetheless. Soon he meets the girl Jung-in (Su-ae) in the village. He is instantly and completely mesmerized by her but he has a long
way ahead of him winning over her heart. Moreover, times are chaotic leading to the government going against anyone who has any kind of contact to
the communist north. Jung-in's father has gone to North Korea after the war and so the village residents regard her with suspicion as well. Suk-young,
however, doesn't care about that. He wants to be together with the girl, but he doesn't know yet what trials he has to undergo for that...
Review: "Once in a Summer" doesn't tell a new story, but the nostalgic warmth, the small details and the simple story that at
all times can win over the viewer with its credibility make this romantic drama a movie that easily makes you willing to be moved to tears. The drama is less
manipulative than others or it isn't that outright obviously manipulative I should say. The movie's strength lies in its heartwarming story, the
nostalgy of a time in which nature still looked natural and the menace of a totalitarian country that tolerates no insurgents overshadowing everything.
It's these complicated times that are seperating the two lovers eventually. Besides a heart-wrenching love story there is also presented a subtly
worked in picture of the political atmosphere of that time. The viewer gets a feeling for what it must have been like to speak out one's mind freely
at that time.
The drama isn't fixated on the political happenings at the time too much, though. This is reflected in the fact alone that Suk-young is pretty much uninterested in politics and is shouting out the paroles of his fellow students half-heartedly. His friends who are fighting for a better and most of all more democratic future of their country are more or less dragging him to the several student protests and actually he is only going to the meetings they hold because he hopes of picking up a girl there. This is also the reason why he goes along with them into a village, even though he absolutely doesn't feel like it. Of course, when he arrives everything changes for the skirt chaser as he falls in love for the first time. The scenes between him and Jung-in seem honest especially because of their clumsiness and can instantly win you over for the relationship between the two. At times you almost forget that as a viewer you already know that this romance has no future.
Still the reason for the frame story is still a bit strange. We only get to see it for a small amount of time and it only seems to fulfill the purpose of underlining the bittersweet note of the love story. Accordingly, characters like the screenplay writer for a TV-show seem rather unnecessary and here it probably also would have been easy to cut the film down a bit. Furthermore, Lee Byung-hun's make-up isn't really convincing. He still looks too much like a youngling. Strangely enough, though, he looks a bit too old for the role of a student! However, this doesn't really interfere with the story and his character is as well elaborated as Su-ae's so that the two actors aren't underchallanged. The innocent relationship that slowly unfolds between the two is universal in nature and works as well nowadays as 40 years ago. The way the two get closer simply manages to put a smile on the viewer's lips.
The colors used in the film, the discreet use of filters and the sets all tell us at every point that we are watching the past. The use of the sun and the different shades of orange also create a warm feeling of nostalgia as well as the great soundtrack that stands out because of a few english ballads. Because of this and because of Lee Byung-hun as well we oftentimes feel reminded of Yu Ha's "Once Upon a Time in High School". Eventually, the two movies walk seperate paths naturally. "Once in a Summer" is only secondary a socio drama and first of all a romantic drama. When the prevalent ideology of the country is tearing the lovers apart this creates a small breach in the movie which we are actually already prepared for thanks to the frame story. Maybe that's the actual reason for the frame story in the first place, apart from the "moving" ending that is made possible because of it.
More than anything else "Once in a Summer" manages to create a certain feeling and that makes the movie so worthwhile. The life in the village is idyllic and the story is told in a heartwarming fashion. The relationship between the two main characters always stands in the focus of the film and unfolds in a natural manner, while the likeable characters can win you over in no time. What's laudable is that beyond that the country's regime and the political demonstrations aren't just touched upon in the way that they just serve as driving a wedge between the two lovers, but that we also get a better idea of how the government chased down communists and democratic movements at that time. In the end the drama is doing everything right concerning the small things that decide whether a romantic drama is simply corny or actually works. "Once in a Summer" is a heartwarming drama.