Stellar A Magical Ride

Stellar: A Magical Ride (2022)

Stellar: A Magical Ride, first presented as an on-stage introduction to its screening at the London Korean Film Festival 2022

You wait for one Korean film where various parties go in chaotic pursuit of a car and its contents, and two come along. Lee Jae-won’s capitalist parable Thunderbird is a tense, shabby, Safdie-esque tale of downward spirals, economic despair and bittersweet betrayal, with, at its centre, a pawned Audi A4 that two brothers are chasing over one long dark night in an infernal small town. Thunderbird is a great film, but also very downbeat, and given that, in keeping with the times, many of this year’s Cinema Now selections are rather on the bleak side, we decided it might be an idea to start sunnily and to open the strand with something brighter and funnier. Kwon Soo-kyung’s Stellar: A Magical Ride also features a missing car which everyone is trying to retrieve, but the fact that it is written by Bae Se-young, whose last screenwriting credit was for Lee Byung-hun’s action comedy smash hit Extreme Job (2019), tells you something about what to expect of its tone. Stellar: A Magical Ride is all at once a road movie, a cross-country chase caper, and a magical-realist melodrama in which an ancient ‘jalopy’ steers one man through his inveterate daddy issues.

Stellar: A Magical Ride opens with a suicide attempt. Before a man can jump off the edge of a high-rise building’s rooftop, the film’s hero Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) steps in to hold him back. In fact, Young-bae’s motives are not altogether heroic: for Young-bae works as a repo man for some shady loan sharks, and he needs the would-be jumper alive to stamp a document before he can legally seize the red Lamborghini Huracán Rosso Mars that was collateral for the man’s debts, and the source of all the man’s troubles. So from the outset, we see Young-bae as a morally slippery figure: a mercenary predator still sometimes capable of doing the right thing, but not necessarily for the right reasons. 

Young-bae also carries a chip on his shoulder about the taxi-driving father who abandoned him as a child, and from whom he has remained estranged ever since – and that grudge has left Young-bae with an abiding resentment and guilt. As he angrily kicks another debtor to the ground in front of the man’s horrified young son, Young-bae will shout: “I hate irresponsible and incompetent fathers the most!” – and no matter whether this scenario is taking place in real life or in a nightmare, it still reveals the strength of Young-bae’s feelings towards his absent father, and the damage that Young-bae both bears and is potentially passing on to others. 

On this fateful day, three things will happen that converge to overturn Young-bae’s life: first, he will make the mistake of entrusting the handover of the repossessed red Lamborghini to his best friend Dong-shik (Lee Kyu-hyung) who, himself mired in debt, will pass the vehicle over to a broker in the hope of a cash return; second Young-bae will discover that his girlfriend Sung-hee (Park Se-young) is pregnant, and so he will have to grapple with the notion that he is himself soon to become a father; and third, Young-bae will receive news that his own father has died, and will head home for the first time in many years to the funeral, hoping to cash in on any inheritance. 

Young-bae may not know it, but he is on a sentimental journey back to his roots, slowly working through his painful, unresolved feelings about his father while driving around in his father’s only legacy, a banged-up, temperamental old Hyundai Stellar. In this barely roadworthy car, Young-bae pursues Dong-shik, even as he is himself pursued by his loan shark boss (Heo Sung-tae) and a gang of thugs all desperate to get their hands on the missing Lamborghini. 

It is a madcap dash through the country, only in a very slow vehicle which, in keeping with the film’s subtitle ‘a magical ride’, seems to have a life of its own. For like Bumblebee from Transformers, like KITT from television’s Knight Rider, or especially like the Volkswagen Beetle from Disney’s Herbie the Love Bug films, this Stellar exhibits signs of sentience, and may just be possessed by the spirit of its former owner, eager to be reconciled with his son, and to ensure that he survives to carry on the family line. 

Stellar: A Magical Ride is about the clash of different kinds of value. The gangsters pursue the Lamborghini not only because it is a supercar and status symbol with a serious price tag attached, but also because its illicit contents come with their own high street value. In contrast, the rusty old Stellar is a neglected piece of junk with practically no monetary worth, but proves to be priceless for something rather less tangible: its value as a memorial of Young-bae’s father and the father’s own often unrecognised love for his son. It is precisely the right vehicle to transport Young-bae on the path to becoming a responsible, competent father in his own right, as debts of familial piety are eventually repaid, and genetic legacies are handed on. I hope you enjoy it.

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Programme note: You wait for one film about men chasing a car with valuable contents, and two come along. Yet where Lee Jae-won’s Thunderbird (2021) is a tense, bleak, Safdie-esque capitalist parable, Kwon Soo-Kyung’s film, named for the Eighties Hyundai Stellar at its centre, is an altogether sunnier affair.

In his estranged, recently deceased father’s old banger, repo man Yeong-bae (Son Ho-jun) pursues his debt-ridden friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) and the drug-filled Lamborghini that Dong-sik has stolen. With gangsters on his tail, Yeong-bae races down memory lane with a vehicle that is both a battered sentimental object from his happier childhood and quite possibly a living, sentient machine. This comic road/chase movie is an improbable blend of Drive My Car and Bumblebee, fuelled by nostalgia and real charm.

strap: Kwon Soo-kyung’s charming feature is all at once road movie, cross-country chase caper, and magical-realist melodrama

© Anton Bitel