Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Love in the Time of Debt: My Dear Enemy (멋진 하루, Meotjin Haru) 2008

Part of Rex Baylon's ongoing feature on director Lee Yoon-ki.

To speak about love in a contemporary real world setting and ignore the logistics of survival has been the bane of the romance genre. In order to sidestep these problems filmmakers in the past have either focused their eye to the upstairs-downstairs drama of the 1% or offered up sentimental stories of shopgirls being wooed by nebbish young suitors. Modern day romantic comedies haven’t fared any better since most are concerned with merely finding one’s true love and quickly fading out once our two lovers are finally together. The romance genre’s evolution through the years has ignored the economics of love in favor of offering up quirky characters in contrived situations.

In Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy money is the impetus for the two ex-lovers reuniting and the reason why they spend the entire day together. Instead of cloying attempts to tell a story about two people falling in love again while draped on all sides by a scenic urban backdrop we get tense scenes where petty grudges are rehashed and even the happier moments of the past are remembered through a cloudy veneer of regret and nostalgia. Far from offering up an affected view of modern day relationships My Dear Enemy is a realistic character study of the ways that hate and love are used to mask one’s insecurities, it’s a travelogue, a visual and aural document, of Seoul at the cusp of a worldwide economic recession, and a charming romantic comedy.

Structured as a series of vignettes we follow emotionally repressed Hee-soo (Jeon Do-yeon) getting dragged around Seoul by her annoyingly optimistic ex-boyfriend Byung-woon (Ha Jung-woo) in an attempt to collect the 3.5 million Won debt that Byung-woon still owes her. Though the two haven’t seen each other for over a year Lee’s script, co-written with Park Eun-yeong and adapted from the Japanese novella One Fine Day by Azuko Taira, doesn’t spell anything out for you. Their relationship ended badly but the root causes of that are merely hinted at, unlike the ex-lovers found in most over-heated romances Hee-soo and Byung-woon’s arguments never really concern what they are fighting about.

Hee-soo clutches her emotions close to the vest. Watching Jeon Do-yeon on screen is a master class in subtle emotional restraint. Vacillating between anger, bemusement, and annoyance seamlessly we can read the couple’s entire history just by looking at the expression on Hee-soo’s face the moment she barks, “I want my money” to a surprised Byung-woon. It’s no surprise that the previous year Jeon had starred in Lee Chang Dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) since many of the emotional tics that had garnered her praise in that film linger on with Hee-soo, though in an obviously less histrionic way.

Driving Byung-woon around town to collect her money it’s at times unclear whether these two are really broken up or if we are merely dropping in on a couple during a very busy weekend together. The chemistry between the two is so palpable that no time is wasted doling out pointless exposition. Who are these women that willingly give money to Byung-woon? What are Hee-soo’s reasons for tracking Byung-woon down? We want to know but in all honesty they don’t matter to the overall narrative. It takes a confident storyteller to not just realize this but also have the wherewithal to follow through.

Though at first our perceptions of Hee-soo as an emotionally withdrawn Ice Queen and Byung-woon as the perennial man-child might lead many to make certain expectations as to the kind of character revelations that might occur in the story, luckily for us someone forgot to tell the two that they were in a film. The multiple sets of masks that both wear to hide their fears and shortcomings makes rewatching scenes akin to examining the Zapruder footage, as we try to suss out the hidden meanings of plainly said words, glances, or gestures.

It is easy to label Byung-woon as a conman, just as Hee-soo repeatedly does in the movie. Rambling on about his latest business idea, acting like a submissive dog when around friends, family, and strangers alike, or easily charming women through banal small talk, this façade hides a layer of insecurities and past wounds which in turn hides a man hungry to get back some of his former success. Leap frogging from one identity to the next one can’t help but think that maybe Ha Jung-woo was channeling a little bit of the baby-faced psychopath that he played in Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008), released only a few months before Lee’s film.

Whatever the inspiration may be for these two it can’t be overstated enough that aside from the back and forth romance at the center of the film one can’t ignore the relationship between these characters and the city of Seoul. Eschewing touristy attractions like posh Gangnam or foreigner friendly Itaewon we instead are shown the less glamorous side of the land of K-pop and big production dramas. Within this everyday environment exists a panoply of characters, each one occupying a unique social and/or economic class. From an affluent middle-aged businesswoman to a high-class hostess, dysfunctional young couples, grey-haired bikers, an aloof teenager, and finally a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Lee takes great pains to showcase these characters as something greater than their quirks.  More importantly, what links all of these supporting players is money, be it an excess or lack of it. By that I don’t just mean in relation to Byung-woon’s goal to repay his debt to Hee-soo, but in the way money dictates behavior and actions, especially in a country where hierarchy is of the utmost importance in regards to social etiquette.

Lending the film a romantic and dreamlike atmosphere, Kim Jeong-bom’s upbeat bossa nova score is a wonderful counterpoint to Choi Sang-ho’s long takes and matter of fact visual style. Riding in Hee-soo’s car or traveling by public transit or foot, My Dear Enemy fits alongside other great travelogue films like Lost in Translation (2003) or Adrift in Tokyo (2007). Just as those films featured two lonely people trying to move forward with their lives but hopelessly stuck in the same routines, Hee-soo and Byung-woon begin the film as drifters. In Byung-woon’s case, this is literally the truth since he is homeless and surviving through the kindness of the various women that he befriends, but Hee-soo could also be said to be a drifter. Although we only get scraps of information throughout the film about her life after their breakup, it is obvious from her pale complexion and the dark eyeliner around her eyes that she is a woman suppressing a lot of anger and self-loathing. Finding Byung-woon and following him around throughout the film is a flimsy attempt by her to exorcise any demons she has concerning him but by the last scene she has come to terms with their relationship. Though both do part ways you get a sense that their story has not ended yet.

Of the five films Lee Yoon-ki has directed My Dear Enemy is the first and only one that could be classified as a commercial film. Aside from the fact it has established stars in the lead roles it also moves with an energy and optimism absent from Lee’s other films. Though those pictures are masterpieces in their own right their ponderous and languid pace can alienate viewers. My Dear Enemy suffers none of those faults and showcases Lee’s unwavering obsession with the ways in which the human psyche is at constant war with itself in regards to our conflicting desire for human interaction and comforting isolation. This universal theme alongside his interest in probing the female psyche proves beyond a doubt that Lee belongs in the pantheon of contemporary film masters. 


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