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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Petty Romance (Jje-jje-han Ro-maen-seu) 2010

Korean romcoms are a dime a dozen in Korea, this is well known, the good news is that most of them are quite good, which is also well know but more than a little surprising to people who may not have seen any. I remember when I first saw My Sassy Girl (2001) and was whole-heartedly enjoying myself, even in spite of my previous prejudice to the genre. Back then I would talk anyone’s ear off who would listen about Korean cinema, truth be told I still do that. It was easy to recommend films to film buffs, most of my colleagues in college, but I struggled to honestly recommend Korean films to many other people. Save the Green Planet (2003) and Oldboy (2003) may have left an impression on me but doubtless those who may not be so keen on stylized violence would be left in the cold. Similarly, Peppermint Candy (1999) and The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) may have been perfect fodder for intellects (would be and otherwise) but those who go to the theater purely for entertainment could not hope to find much to their liking in these films. It was then with great joy and relief that I came across My Sassy Girl, a wonderfully entertaining film that was clever, well-made, and would appeal to a different kind of film viewer. I was able to recommend Korean cinema to people who don’t ever seek out foreign film.

Jeong-bae and Da-rim
This was a turning point in my appreciation of Korea’s film industry, revenge picks and arthouse flicks were all well and good, and they were oh so good, but I learnt that Korea had a lot more to offer to a broader audience. My Sassy Girl was a complete departure from what I’d seen and yet the skill, craftsmanship, and many of the inherent themes still made this evidently cut from the same cloth as what I had previously digested. It’s just that the cloth was bigger than I had once thought, if such a commercial film, a romantic comedy could be produced by an emerging industry, what else was in store? I quickly found out that the answer was a lot, I opened myself to films that on paper may not have been my cup of tea. I was wholly democratic in my Korean film selection and the treasures I uncovered were rich and plenty.

Petty Romance is not My Sassy Girl, and likely it will not motivate the same kind of response as it did in me, but it is a more than serviceable film that reminded me of that same feeling. If it were an American film I would probably hate it, because it would have displayed less ingenuity, quality, and verve, but I admit also because it wouldn’t have been Korean. I am completely biased at this point, and unashamedly so. I will watch any Korean film and pretty much always find something to like in them or link them to others I’ve seen. On paper, Petty Romance is a film that I would have no interest in, but I trust Korean filmmakers to do something new and I also trust the online community of filmmakers that have been quite taken with this new offering.

Externalizing the internal with animation
The film is about an amateur comic book writer Jeong-bae who is a great illustrator but has some problems when it comes to writing a story. After being rejected everywhere with his 3-years in the making oeuvre, he decides to enter a competition for an adult comic with a $100,000 prize. He must do this in order to buy back his late father’s painting, which otherwise will be auctioned off to cover his debt to one of his father’s friends. Da-rim is a struggling sex columnist who can’t hold down a job and is staying with her playboy brother. Jeong-bae interviews for a story writer to help him win the competition and selects Da-rim, they bicker their way through the project and of course fall in love but not without a few obstacles.

It’s a simple story that is told effectively but it does approach its subject matter in a clever fashion. As the two create the story for the comic it becomes apparent that it is just a externalization of their sexual anxieties, not least because Da-rim is a virgin. Debut director Kim Jeong-hoon-Il, who previously penned Sword in the Moon (2003), capitalizes on these moments with well-rendered animation sequences which also serve to quicken the pace of the film, which is not always up to speed with the snappiness of the film’s characters. In fact the film’s main flaw is probably its length. At 117 minutes it is not an overly long Korean film but the story struggles across it at points. A curious amount of counterpoint is achieved throughout the film, especially due to the animation scenes which are explicitly violent and sexual that are placed in this quirky good-natured romcom. I think it is a good addition as it adds some gravitas to the inner frustrations of the characters.

A very modern film
The lead performances from Lee Seon-gyoon and Choi Kang-hee are quite charming and their chemistry is engaging. The supporting characters are the typical placeholders you would expect in this kind of a film and while the resolutions are visible from a distance the journey is entertaining enough for this to be a worthwhile venture. One last thing I should say about this film is that it is definitely one of the most modern Korean films I’ve seen. It was released last December and besides its use of iPhones and the various other trappings of modern society it has an extremely modern look and feel: one scene features Da-rim and her friend at a club where the music is very downbeat minimalist techno and the patrons dance in a trance. I can’t quite explain all it but it felt a little different from what I’ve seen previously. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who doesn’t already know they like Korean romcoms but if you have any interest in them Petty Romance is definitely worth a look.

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