Based upon the novel, Russian Coffee by Kim Tak-hwan, Gabi concerns the [fictional] attempt to assassinate King Gojang (Park Hee Soon), the 26th King of the Joseon Dynasty. The film opens with the capture of Illichi (Ju Jin Mo) and Tanya (Kim So Yeon), thieves who make a living stealing from both the Japanese and the Russians. In exchange for their lives, Illichi and Tanya are forced to work for the Japanese, who want them to kill the King. The plan is named ‘Operation Gabi’, one of the multiple references to coffee that runs throughout the film, and Tanya turns out to be an expert at making coffee (which at the time was newly introduced to Korea) which enables her to get close to the King, who is depicted an irresponsible leader, more concerned with his own status, than the suffering of his country. Ultimately the plot to kill the King fails as neither Tanya nor Illichi are able to go through with it, even though it is the only way to ensure their safety, leading to a typical Korean melodramatic conclusion.
While there have been criticisms of the film’s veracity to detail, use of CGI and problems regarding linguistic accuracy in relation to the use of both Russian and Japanese dialogue, Gabi is a great deal of fun to watch and there is much to enjoy about it. The locations and costumes are visually stunning, and the performances are nicely realised, drawing the viewer into identifying with the doomed lovers Tanya and Illichi while not constructing events within a simplistic good/evil binary and thus avoiding a nationalistic jingoism about good Korea and evil Others.
Like the coffee that Tanya serves, bitter with a touch of sweetness, Gabi is a multi-layered narrative that needs to be savored more than once. The complexity of the conspiracy to assassinate the King and the relationships between the main players in the plot also necessitates repeated viewings. Gabi ultimately is a visual and aural treat for the senses, and as long as one does not confuse with fiction with reality, is well worth the admission price, and is certainly a film that I will be purchasing on DVD when, and if, it becomes available in the UK.