(by Rex Baylon)
There used to be a time when America was known as a manufacturing giant. In agriculture, electronics, and automobile design America seemed not to have any contenders. With regards to film, Hollywood was the first and last word when it came to cinema. Even as the US began its slow decline, the soft power of American cinema never seemed to waver even through all the social upheaval of the twentieth century; while presidents came and went, one hit wonders rose and fell, and wars were won or lost, Hollywood never lost its luster in the eyes of foreign and domestic audiences.
However, as the calendar rolled back to zero it seemed that the American cinema empire had begun to show signs of wear. A plus to this is that ignored pockets of the cine-verse were being explored. National cinemas outside the realm of America and Western Europe were finally getting their day in the sun. Hollywood films still played to worldwide audiences but viewers became more discerning with the entertainment they consumed. Case in point, cinephiles around the world at the start of the aughts were drawn to Korean films because of the strong and oftentimes violent emotions and stories being enacted onscreen. Yet aside from that, Korean cinema took the entirety of film history and instead of just reinventing the wheel chose instead to respect the past while at the same time reinvigorating flagging genres. While old Hollywood trotted out its tired formulaic pictures to an even more apathetic crowd, Korea’s film industry grew by leaps and bounds as it’s homegrown talents brought life back into the thriller, the melodrama, and the romantic comedy.
You would be hard-pressed to find a Korean film fan or scholar who would label Min Kyu-dong as an auteur. Beginning his career off with a bang, Min co-directed the classic K-horror picture Memento Mori (1999) after which he followed it up with a series of romantic melodramas and comedies, none that seemed to set the world on fire but nonetheless they cemented the man’s status as a journeyman director. In 2012, a banner year for Korean romantic films, the veteran filmmaker released All About My Wife, a picture, which if judged merely by its poster and trailer would make many viewers roll their eyes in utter disgust by their mis-perception that the film was some sort of cookie-cutter Katherine Heigl or Reese Witherspoon rom-com. Min’s film though is more reminiscent of classic 30’s screwball comedies and Billy Wilder’s mid-century romantic melodramas. And what elevates the film to an even higher plane is that Min and his co-writer Heo Sung-hye play around with the romance and screwball genres, all the while referencing and poking fun at the tropes that have made people come back for more as well as the clichés that inspire some of the most genuine hatred for the genre.
Structured like a roundelay, a possible allusion to Max Ophuls’ classic melodramas of the 40’s and 50’s, All About My Wife’s circular narrative opens on a scene of two lonely people on holiday in Japan stumbling upon one another during an earthquake and falling in love over a simple meal of tea and noodles. This meet-cute is echoed in the final scene of the film as the two lovers, who’ve broken up by this time, are in a restaurant replaying their entire relationship all the way to their first meeting and rekindling their romance as each discovers the motivations that drove them to each other. In between the opener and closer we are witness to a comic waltz between the milquetoast Doo-hyun (Lee Sun-kyun), his abrasive wife Jung-in (Lim Soo-jung), and Sung-ki (Ryoo Seung-ryong) the Casanova. This odd love triangle features Doo-hyun being completely repelled by his wife and trying to pawn her off to Sung-ki who takes on the job of seducing her. Of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Jung-in, who seems to be in her own little world where everything irritates her gives, the film a real sense of kinetic energy.
Jung-in might seem like the archetypical nagging wife/ballbuster but as the story develops and we witness her interacting with various characters she is revealed to be a far more sympathetic character than her long suffering husband and would-be seducer. And unlike many contemporary American rom-coms that place the woman as some prize for the male leads to compete over Jung-in is developed as a character with distinct wants, hopes, desires, and neurotic tics. Neither a shiny prize to fawn over and also not a cliché bitch-goddess from the ninth circle of hell, her arc in the story is not about her changing her personality to suit her male counterparts, but rather everyone around her coming to understand and see her as something more than just a shrill banshee screaming out obscenities and pointing out people’s masked flaws.
As for Doo-hyun and Sung-ki, these two opposites have a very unusual dynamic in the film. At first, Doo-hyun envies Sung’s bachelor lifestyle, with women constantly trying to knock down his door, and there is an expectation that Sung will begin mentoring Doo-hyun in the ways of seduction and living the carefree bachelor lifestyle that Doo seemingly wants to live but none of that occurs. Doo-hyun is just a frustrated man who is incapable of expressing his thoughts and opinions, especially to the one person that should matter to him the most, his wife. This problem is the root cause of all his issues with his wife and ironically it is Sung’s advice on how to make his wife fall out of love with him that forces him to realize this fatal flaw in his character and in turn Sung becomes far less of a rival or caricature. Ryoo Seung-ryong’s portrayal of a damaged lothario who can have any woman except for the one who got away walks that fine line between broad comedy and serious drama but he pulls it off. This is a good thing since a character who can do anything and seemingly seduce anyone is so comical and so far removed from reality that there is a real danger in thinking that the character is just a one-note joke.
A perfect example of this is when Sung begins studying up on all the things that interest, annoy, and motivate Jung-in. On first watching this scene I thought it was far too hokey and during those first few run-ins between Jung and Sung-ki the chemistry and seduction ploy weren't believable. But as Jung-in starts to warm up to him and Sung-ki’s personality begins to meld with the fake one he has been cultivating to attract Jung-in you become invested in this possible relationship. One scene specifically threaded this storyline with one of my favorite Wong Kar-Wai films, Days of Being Wild (1990). Sung-ki references verbatim a classic line from the film spoken ironically by a character, played by iconic Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung, who plays a tragic playboy character just like Sung-ki does in All About My Wife. These subtle references peppered through out the film as well as the wonderful acting between the three leads make me happy that at least one country is continuing the tradition of smart romantic comedies that American cinema has abandoned for blockbuster spectacles.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).