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Original Title:
Sonimeun wangida

South Korea 2006

Thriller, Drama

Oh Ki-hyeon

Sung Ju-ru
Myeong Gye-nam
Seong Hyeon-a
Lee Seon-gyun

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The Customer is always right

Story: Ahn Chang-jin (Sung Ju-ru) owns a barbershop and sees himself as an artist in his business. He has a beautiful wife, Yeon-ok (Seong Hyeon-a), who he seldomly gets to see, however, as she is working as a professional "Life Planner". Actually, Yeon-ok isn't interested in her life with her husband and cheats him on several occassions. Chang-jin hasn't any clue about this, but he still is unhappy, even if he doesn't show it most of the time. He meets with a prostitute, who just happens to rob him and vanishes.
Shortly thereafter gangster Kim Yang-gil (Myeong Gye-nam) appears in Ahn's shop and says that he knows about Ahn's secret. If he doesn't want him to go to the police and tell them that Ahn has run over a prostitute, committing a hit and run, he wants him to pay hush money.
From now on Yang-gil visits Ahn from time to time and always demands twice as much money as he wanted the visit before. Chang-jin soon has no money left and doesn't know how to continue his life this way. He assigns a shady private eye, Jang-gil (Lee Seon-gyun), to investigate his blackmailer. What Jang-gil finds out about Yang-gil is amazing, yet the question remains: Did Chang-jin really kill someone and commit a hit and run?

Review: Where to begin with concerning "The Customer is always right"... This movie is unusual, strange and almost unique. Director Oh Ki-hyeon's efforts to make a Korean film that is somewhat different from mainstream surely is something he deserves credit for. He creates a thriller, which offers a good amount of black humour. Towards the end there is more and more drama finding its way on screen, so that the movie actually can go near to you, eventually. However, up until then the dubious characters and the emotional distance the sets induce, create an unnecessary wall between the viewer and the events on screen. Somehow it's really hard to get access to this film, only towards the showdown this changes, fortunately. For some this might be just too late, but, the movie can score with some other strengths.

What's catching our eye right from the start is the great cinematography. The marvelous visuals make the barber shop, to which we always return throughout the film, look like the working space of an artist. The polished black and white flagstones of the floor, the ceiling fan or the picture at the wall generate an appealing, even if also sterile atmosphere. Chang-jin has a mania for cleanliness and order, but his carefully organized life isn't as nice as he wants it to be and isn't without any flaws at all. The viewer knows this way before he does, because right from the beginning he just seems like a stereotype, predestined to be cheated and blackmailed. This is also where some of the movie's flaws are to be found, because we never can relate to Chang-jin's character. He always remains to reserved and since we have to assume that he killed a girl we also don't really care about his fate.

Only when Yang-gil enters the scene it begins to be fun to watch. Actor Myeong Gye-nam outplays anyone on screen with his cool, intellectual and yet ruthless portrayal of a gangster. Against his screen presence no one else of the cast really stands a chance. His character remains in the dark for most of the time. Where does he come from and who is he anyway? This we get to know when private eye Jang-gil investigates his past. Here, the hidden cleverness of the film finally shows. Intertextuality isn't something absolutely new in Korean movies, because there are oftentimes allusions to other works in Korean pictures. However, in "The Customer is always right" this is brought to a new level of intensity. The clips from "Green Fish" that are shown throughout the movie are original scenes of that film and so the movie character Kim Yang-gil slowly fuses with the real individual Myeong Gye-nam and his role in "Green Fish". In order to spoil as few as possible I won't go in any more details, still, this little trick works exceptionally well, moreover is implemented with a good amount of self-irony, and provides the film with an additional narrative level, also.

It's true that you can't deny the fact that everything looks a bit like a stage play. There are only few sets and most of the time all that's really important happens at the barber shop. The camera work is over the top, some insertions, that look like being shot with an antiquarian camera, as well as some inventive comic-like splitscreens provide us with a certain high artistic standard. The already mentioned grandiose visuals get complemented by a great soundtrack that sticks out mainly because of its classic pieces and the cello sound that accompany the events pretty well.
Nonetheless, it is sad, that many of the characters remain too shallow. Seong Hyeon-a ("Lover") is only eye-candy and has no other job than to bring a certain degree of eroticism into the film. Her story, as well as her several infidelities are only mentioned on a sidenote. Lee Seon-gyun ("R-Point") is the only person, apart from Yang-gil, that can be quite interesting, as there is always something mysterious about him. However, this again leads to the problem, that we can't relate to him as it is sadly the case with all other characters.

For quite some time the viewer is left in the dark concerning several questions the movie raises or provokes and the director seems to take pleasure in tantalizing the audience for an almost endless amount of time. If it weren't for the great and mean-charismatic effort of Myeong Gye-nam the movie really would have taken the risk to be just plain boring. Still, even as it is, there are some pacing problems left. Furthermore, many things just don't work out the way, they might have been supposed to. The repetitive style of some scenes is sometimes pretty tedious and somehow the movie just feels strange at times. Why is that? It is because you really never have seen anything like "The Customer is always right" before. And this, as time goes by, actually turns into one of the movie's strengths. Besides, with its handful of people in the center of events the film almost resembles a stage play, which is also fun.

The modest use of black humour and the long great resolution at the end, as well as the several time jumps into the past can be quite fascinating. There are lots of twists, nice allusions, also involving the title of the movie, and in the end it is really easy to put every piece together, eventually, so that everything becomes a whole at last. Even though we can't deny the fact that some (unimportant) pieces get lost along the way.
Interestingly enough the film works strongly on a drama level at the end, and does so impressively well. Finally, we can sympathize with at least one of the characters. The emotional distance, however, remains an annoying thread or rather motif that runs through the whole movie and really could have been avoided.
"The Customer is always right" is a difficult case. For some viewers the film will be just too alienating, and others won't hang on long enough to discover the hidden cleverness in this movie. Furthermore, there are also some flaws to be found concerning entertainment, even if this doesn't carry that much weight.

The fact of the matter is that there are some exceptionally well approaches, the visuals are great and the story is enthralling, too. Director Oh Ki-hyeon just has to work on his final touch. For a first-time-director this is great stuff, however. It leaves us hoping that he gets another chance in the future in order to improve his skills even more. There definitely is potential and his courage to make a somewhat different movie and not go for the umpteenth rom-com as all the other first-time directors do, shall be rewarded in this review.
"The Customer is always right" surely isn't for everyone, but it should be easy to read between the lines that I find Oh's work actually to be very unique and fascinating.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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