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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Architecture 101 (건축학개론, Geonchukhakgaeron) 2012

By Rex Baylon

Woe to all the young lovers around the world. In the arena of melodrama there seems to be no greater sin than to be young and in love. And within the confines of Korean film, a national cinema that relishes in using sickness, war, class conflicts and all manner of other obstacles great and small to keep its young lovers apart, the cinematic landscape is littered with countless failed and stillborn romances that have withered on the vine due to masculine pride or the natural process of time. The trauma brought on by these failed first time affairs of the heart reverberate all the way to adulthood with failed marriages, arrested development, and emotionally vacant characters being familiar tropes within the Korean romance genre.

After dabbling in the eerie atmosphere that is K-Horror with the supernatural thriller Possessed (Bulsinjiok, 2009), architect-turned-filmmaker Lee Yong-ju was back in the spotlight in 2012 with his new project Architecture 101. Revolving around the complicated relationship between an architect, Seung-min, played by Uhm Tae-woong, and his first love, Seo-yeon (Han Ga-in). Lee’s sophomore feature uses a split narrative focusing half the story in the not-so-distant past, where the two lovers of our story first meet and subsequently fall in love, and the present day where, for reasons not yet made aware to us, Seung-min and Seo-yeon have drifted apart and are no longer together. Commissioned by Seo-yeon to design a new home for her on Jeju island, Architecture 101 follows the same story beats that countless Hallyu love stories have followed since Hur Jin-ho’s masterpiece Christmas in August (1998).

Just as those previous films embraced a very relaxed narrative pace, an almost allergic reaction to Hollywood endings, and an overriding need to put on a pedestal the purity and innocence of first love so does Architecture 101. This familiarity with the material attracted hordes of people to the theaters and propelled the film to be the 4th biggest box-office draw of 2012 to date, as well as the best-selling romance in the country's history, selling over 4 million tickets since its April release. Yet Lee’s film is not just some Franken-film creation, just an assemblage of best-of scenes from every good South Korean love story made in the last 10 years.

In fact, learning from past successes and misfires in the genre, Lee elevates the film beyond those previous works and walking the fine line between melodrama and more contemplative fare has constructed something that has the dimensions of a Lee Yoon-ki picture but the interiors of a satisfying love story that will have every onion-skinned viewer bawling before the end credits roll.

To give Lee Yong-ju complete credit for Architecture 101’s success would be wholly ludicrous though. What makes the film, in fact what makes any romantic story believable, is the chemistry between the two lovers, and with two sets of actors ostensibly playing the same characters from two different periods of time, the danger of there being an incongruity between one actor’s performance ruining the entire story was high.

The Seung-min we meet during the flashbacks, played by Lee Je-hoon, is a wholly different character from Uhm Tae-woong’s performance. A bit naïve and shy, Lee Je-hoon’s Seung-min is a bright young student with modest ambitions, a stark contrast to the tired and emotionally weather-beaten man he will grow up to be. As for Seo-yeon, played by up-and-coming pop star turned actress Bae Suzy, she is a cauldron of boiling emotions and resentment due to her humble background. Originally from Jeju island but a recent transplant to Seoul, her dreams of playing piano professionally are quickly replaced with a desire to live in posh Gangnam, an unfortunate consequence to all the class snobbery she is met with at school. Fast forward fifteen years later and Han Ga-in’s Seo-yeon is now a divorcee with a modest fortune, tired of all the social climbing and, her resentment replaced with regret, she goes in search of the boy that was hopelessly devoted to her back then.

However, when they are finally reunited, the rose-tinted glasses that Seung-min had viewed his dream girl through have long since cracked. Their break-up, seen through his eyes, was all her fault, but as we later find out the blame lays equally on the young man’s own insecurities. Two flawed people in love, it may not be Romeo and Juliet but Seung-min and Seo-yeon’s story has far more relevance to young people than the star-crossed tragedy of a couple of kids from Verona, Italy. Our memories may deceive us but the phantom pangs of first love never completely disappear; be it a song on a record, a roughly drawn sketch of a home to share together, or a face that made us smile even when we were at our most insecure, the heart can never forget.


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