There’s something inherently comforting about the road trip movie. Always following the same narrative formula, with little room to innovate due to its constraints, a film within this subgenre is always about a journey both literal and metaphorical – the lead character experiencing emotional growth, whilst ticking off all the expected beats you’d expect on the way. They will encounter problem drivers on the road, they will pick up a quirky hitchhiker during their travels, and they will all but certainly learn something quietly profound about themselves as they arrive at their eventual destination.
But sometimes, simply following this formula to a tee proves less than satisfying; it can be hard to overlook the storytelling mechanics slotting into place, making it difficult to properly invest within a character’s journey that feels engineered cynically to generate an emotional reaction. This proves to be the case with Stellar: A Magical Ride, Kwon Soo-kyung’s whimsical comedy-drama which just received its UK premiere at the 2022 London Korean Film Festival. Tugging at the heartstrings via its nostalgic, melancholic tale of a man reminiscing over his relationship with his father, combined with an overtly quirky crime comedy subplot, the director’s film (adapted from a screenplay by Bae Se-young) takes the audience down an all-too-familiar road. It wants to feel like a revelatory journey down an untrodden path, but instead proves to be every bit as unremarkable as the daily work commute.
Son Ho-jun stars as Young-bae, a car broker about to close the deal of a lifetime on a Lamborghini worth approximately $300,000. However, he has a whole host of issues at home to deal with in the fallout of his father’s death, and his girlfriend’s own pregnancy that he’s reluctant to face up to with responsibility. To make things worse, he comes into conflict with a local gang who have, unbeknownst to him, hidden illegal cargo in the boot of his prize vehicle – which is then unwillingly stolen by his debt-ridden friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) in a get-rich-quick scheme. Now in over his head, Young-bae must head out on the road to retrieve the vehicle and evade the gang on his tail, all while taking the wheel of the titular vehicle: the Hynudai Stellar owned by his father.
The road trip itself proves unremarkable once the stakes have been set. The cat-and-mouse chase between the protagonist and the gang on his tail, led by Squid Game star Heo Sung-tae, never comes close to achieving either the tension or the vehicular slapstick it needs to become a successful action comedy. The car chases themselves are staged in unremarkably conventional ways, a sign that rather than being crucial in building momentum, they were something of an afterthought for the filmmaker; an action-comedy that prioritises the underwritten character drama at its core over either genre descriptor it aspires to.
It doesn’t help that the crime aspects of the narrative are largely an afterthought driven by coincidence – an excuse to get the main character on an emotionally revelatory road trip, that it must keep awkwardly cutting back to whenever he gets close to a moment of clarity. It also ticks off all of the aforementioned cliches you’d expect from a film within the genre, meaning that we move from one disparate moment devoid of inspiration (a quirky hitchhiker briefly tagging along on the journey) to another (the gang easily finding Young-bae via a stranger’s Instagram post, less than a minute after it’s been posted), every incident a cheap moment of chance that exists purely to move the story forward.
The title may promise a Magical Ride, but Kwon Soo-kyung’s film very quickly proves to be less than Stellar.
Written by Alistair Ryder