Romance Joe 로맨스 조
Contemporary black comedy
2011, colour, 2.35:1, 114 mins
Directed by Lee Kwang-kuk (이광국 | 李光國)
By Derek Elley
Sun, 04 March 2012, 21:00 PM (HKT)
Playful black comedy on storytelling is an impressive debut by a onetime Hong Sang-soo assistant. Festivals, plus niche TV.
Seoul, the present day. Two parents (Kim Su-ung, Park Hye-jin) arrive to visit their son, a longtime assistant director who came to the city 18 years ago wanting to become a filmmaker. However, his friend Seo Dam (Kim Dong-hyeon), also in the film business, tells them that their son has been depressed by the recent suicide of actress Wu Ju-hyeon and has gone missing, unable to finish a script he was working on and offering to sell it to him. Meanwhile, Lee (Jo Han-cheol), the director of hit movie A Good Guy, which starred Wu, has been dumped by his producer Gwon (Baek Ik-nam) in the countryside Mt. Godong Motel to force him to finish his next script. Blocked for ideas, Lee orders a coffee in his room from local call-girl/teahouse owner Re-ji (Shin Dong-mi), who offers to tell him a story if he pays for her to stay. Her story is about a man she dubbed "Romance Joe" (Kim Yeong-pil), a film director who after 18 years in Seoul moved to her hometown, depressed over the suicide of actress Wu and determined also to take his own life. Staying in Mt. Godong Motel, he's interrupted by Re-ji, who has a tea-delivery there but knocks on the wrong door by mistake. While trying to take his life, Romance Joe had remembered, when young (David Lee), rescuing a schoolmate, Kim Cho-hui (Lee Chae-eun), from slitting her wrist in the woods after sleeping with a fellow student and later spending time with her and falling for her. Meanwhile, to pass the time, Seo Dam tells his friend's parents the story of a script he's working on: the story of a boy (Ryu Ui-hyeon) who came looking for his long-lost mother Cho-hui at the Arirang Teahouse run by Re-ji. Meanwhile, in Re-ji's story to director Lee, Romance Joe and she meet again when drunk one night and end up in bed together.
It's no surprise to discover that writer-director LEE Kwang-kuk 이광국 | 李光國 worked for several years as an assistant to HONG Sang-soo 홍상수 | 洪常秀 (from Tale of Cinema 극장전 (2005) to Hahaha 하하하 (2010)) as, with its interlocking stories, copious consumption of soju, characters involved in the film business and delight in leading the viewer up the garden path, his first feature carries a strong whiff of Hong's own movies. But Romance Joe 로맨스 조 (2011) also has its own flavour, and resonates on an emotional level much more than many of Hong's lighter films, thanks to a tip-top cast that manages to draw characters who are not simply marionettes in an elaborate directorial game.
The game element is still present in the cleverly constructed screenplay, which often requires major concentration to keep all three interlocking stories in one's head as the film freely cross-cuts between them. But it does all (kind of) finally make sense, and Lee's direction matches the precision of his writing. The throwaway comic ending, which casts doubt on everything the audience has seen to that point in a Lewis Carroll way, seems unnecessary in the circumstances, as the movie has already made its point that storytelling, even when supposedly based on real events, is finally just another artefact.
In a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world — with figures doubling over the past decade, and showbiz suicides regular events — Lee's handling of this blackly comic element is especially bold, with wrist-slitting bringing characters together and the suicide of a well-known actress hanging over the title figure. In the event, this element is handled subtly, and not for straight laughs. Where Lee does fall down, however, is in the movie's pacing: at almost two hours it is at least 20 minutes too long, and several scenes could be shortened or cut with no loss at all.
As the title character, KIM Yeong-pil 김영필 | 金英必 essays the same kind of easy charm as he did in Rolling Home with a Bull 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (2010), as well as recalling actors from Hong's stable like KIM Sang-gyeong 김상경 | 金相慶 and YU Jun-sang 유준상 | 劉俊相. And the teenage David LEE 이다윗 is also good as the character's younger, sexually hesitant self. But the movie is sustained by two considerable performances from actresses SHIN Dong-mi 신동미 | 申東美 and LEE Chae-eun 이채은 | 李彩恩, both in leading roles for the first time. Shin is terrific as the straight-talking teahouse owner-cum-call girl Re-ji, effectively a double role as both a storyteller and a figure in another's story, while 30-year-old Lee is equally chameleon as both a teenage schoolgirl and her older self.
ContactSales: M-Line Distribution, Seoul (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Premiere: Busan Film Festival (Korean Cinema Today: Vision), 7 Oct 2011. Theatrical release: South Korea, 8 Mar 2012.
Presented by Cine21i (SK). Produced by Bori Pictures (SK). Executive producer: Kim Sang-yun. Producer: Yim Soon-rye.
Script: Lee Kwang-kuk. Photography: Ji Yun-jeong. Editing: Son Yeon-ji. Music: Park Jin-seok. Art direction: uncredited. Sound: Yun Jong-min, Seo Yeong-jun.
Cast: Kim Yeong-pil (Romance Joe), Shin Dong-mi (Re-ji), Lee Chae-eun (Kim Cho-hui), David Lee (young Romance Joe), Kim Dong-hyeon (Seo Dam; policeman at end), Jo Han-cheol (Lee, the film director), Ryu Ui-hyeon (Cho-hui's son), Kim Su-ung (Romance Joe's father), Park Hye-jin (Romance Joe's mother), Jo Deok-je (Cho-hui's father), Seo Yeong-hwa (Cho-hui's mother), Baek Ik-nam (Gwon, the producer), Park Su-min (Re-ji's colleague), Bae Dan-hui, Bang Yeong-bae (students), Lee Dal (Seo Dam, as a university student), Gwak Ja-hyeong (fat guy), Kim Sae-byeok (nurse), Jo Jae-yun (foodstall owner).