Musical drama falls short of potentialThere is a whole list of musical dramas that pop into your mind as you watch the first two minutes of a trailer for the Korean film “For Horowitz.”
Let me alert you first. Unless you’re an ardent fan of Uhm Jung-hwa, the film’s lead who plays a piano teacher in a suburban neighborhood, this is merely a family film that will likely show up on television producers’ lists as the next holiday movie.
The film follows a familiar storyline. Ji-su (played by Uhm) is too arrogant to admit she wouldn’t have become as great a pianist as Vladimir Horowitz even if her family had been able to afford to send her abroad to study. Hope is scarce in her petty little piano school above the pizza parlor in a shabby complex full of young mothers with misguided ideals about their children as the next music prodigies.
That is until Ji-su meets Gyung-min, a young motherless boy who is being raised by his angry grandmother, exhausted from feeding her two families. Ji-su fosters the ambitious hope of making the boy a world star. She feeds him; takes him to a zoo and plays Schumann’s “Traumerei” (Dream) to coax the stubborn boy. But she eventually sends him to a German musician couple, realizing the budding star needs a better teacher.
Films about genius musicians tend to have things in common: they often evolve around the tragic circumstances of their births, and the only escape and empowerment they attain from their desperate reality is music. You see that in the tale of Mozart in “Amadeus” and in “Shine,” where pianist David Helfgott slips into mental collapse at the peak of his career.
“For Horowitz” charts a similar plotline, named after the Russian pianist who earned incredible fame during his lifetime despite traumas in his personal life. The musician experienced chronic depression and underwent shock treatment to alter his homosexual orientation.
Yet the film lacks the epic spectacle that many musical dramas convey. In “For Horowitz,” it seems that the film has deliberately limited its potential to reach the standard of a lukewarm drama rather than pushing to the edge to become a musical epic. Strangely, the story has fallen flat, largely because it doesn’t pay enough attention to its choice of music at the film’s critical moments.
Even when Gyung-min, who did indeed grow up to become a celebrity pianist, plays Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 during the final scene in his first reunion with his old piano teacher, the film misses the grandeur of Geoffrey Rush’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 from “Shine” or the desperation and helpless romanticism when Szpilman performs Chopin’s Ballade in G minor before a German officer in the attic of a rundown building in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.”
For an industry reputed for parading snobbery, the film makes a fair statement about the social reality of musicians. Yet if the central fascination of musical dramas lies in dramatic tensions that arise from the helpless tragedy of life and the transcendent beauty of music, “For Horowitz” fails to reflect on both.
by Park Soo-mee