Antique Bakery (Sayangkoldong yangkwajajeom aentikeu)

Korea (2008) Dir. Kyu-Dong Min

Single man Kim Jin Hyeok (Joo Ji Hoon) has a large inheritance to spend so he decides that opening a cake store would be the best use of his money, despite his hatred of cakes. Instead he hopes this will pull in the ladies and possibly the girl of his dreams. For a pastry chef Jin Hyeok hires Korea’s top man Min Seon Woo (Kim Jae Wook), an old school pal of Jin Hyeok who once declared his love for him! As an openly gay man Seon Woo hates women so Jin Hyeok only hires male co-workers, all of whom quit after being chased out by Seon Woo’s advances – this is until ex-boxer Yang Ki Beom (Yoo Ah In) shows up followed by clumsy Nam Su-yeong (Ji-ho Choi) who does fancy Seon Woo but this time, the feelings aren’t reciprocated.

Director Kyu-Dong Min has come a long way since his debut with the horror hit Memento Mori – which also shares same-sex love themes (this time between two schoolgirls) – with dramas concerning life, death, sex and romance. This hugely successful film which straddles all of those genres with some quirky humour added to complete the set, is actually based on a Japanese manga by Fumi Yoshinaga which has already been subject to an anime and live action TV drama adaptation – albeit with the homosexual element practically eliminated from the latter. But don’t be put off by thinking this is a “gay” film – that just happens to be the proclivity of one of the characters – it has humour, drama and an extremely disturbing sub plot that rumbles quietly under the surface until it explodes in the final act. And cakes. Lots of cakes – since the central question this film asks is whether life can get any better when eating a slice of cake. If you are on a diet then I suggest you find something else to watch otherwise chances are you will have put on weight by the time the film hits the halfway mark!

Staying true to the manga’s esoteric flair this film likes to dart about and take liberties with the narrative, be it flitting between timelines or throwing in random scenes of cartoonish fancy on a whim, not to mention the occasional use of split screen for that comic panel effect. All of this and the jaunty pace means there is a lot to take in, so don’t feel alarmed if you don’t quite get a handle on all the main characters and their backgrounds. What is clear is that each of our four purveyors of pastry delights have their own relationship with cakes which tie in with their own reasons for being where they are. Some are straight forward, some not so pretty, but none are revealed straight away until someone arrives at the shop to bring back old memories and bring these secrets to light.

The relationship between the four male leads is unique in that they don’t seem to get along while somehow getting along. Seon Woo tries to seduce Jin Hyeok to no avail while he is trying to fend off the advances of a smitten school girl which is a film long running gag. But the reason Seon Woo was able to walk back into Jin Hyeok’s life was his break up with top French chef Jean-Baptiste Evan (Andy Gillet) who arrives in Korea seeking reconciliation with Seon Woo, much to Jin Hyeok’s disdain. The backgrounds of Ki Beom and Su yeong are given a quick run through but nothing substantial to stick with the viewer, making their present day exploits their sole method of connection which are amusing enough.

There is a dramatic sub plot involving missing children which seems fairly incongruous until the final act, highlighting the problem of cramming too much into one film in such a haphazard manner. It’s quite jarring to see how dark and starkly confrontational the scenes concluding this thread are in contrast to the joyful frivolity of the rest of the film. It doesn’t help that it was saved for the final act with just a few passing set up references dotted throughout the first part of the film, when the actual pay off and the lead up to it is quite clever and worthy of a being a film plot of its own. This is not even a case of a plot twist per se this is something that pretty much literally come out of nowhere.

Perhaps it’s just me but while these were the most powerful scenes of the film they seem tenuously related to the rest of the film – not strictly true because the facts are there but when the first seventy minutes are a light comedy then we get a dark psychodrama, its hard to reconcile such a sudden clash of styles and moods. Similarly, the gay aspect is not a regularly explored subject in Korean cinema, thus, while it has a few male kissing scenes, the fall out is the comedic disdain and aghast, complete with derogatory name calling which are now frowned upon here in the west.

Antique Bakery has enough energy, up tempo joie de vivre and quirky ideas to make for an entertaining enough romp but for me, the confused script and discrepant final act leaves me feeling like I’ve had a nice fluffy, sweet tasting slice of cake with that last mouthful being a bit too hard to swallow.