Friday, April 14, 2023

KILLING ROMANCE Will Make You Fall in Love with Korean Cinema All Over Again

By Pierce Conran

Almost 20 years ago I walked into a theatre in Dublin, taking a chance on a strange-looking movie that no one had heard of. I was rewarded with one of the best cinema experiences of my life. I grinned from ear to ear from start to finish, as I laughed, and cried, and marvelled at the constant madcap ingenuity rocketing from the screen into my bewildered eyeballs. That film was Save the Green Planet.

I’ve been fruitlessly searching for that feeling ever since, until now.

Director Lee Won-suk debuted ten years ago with How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, a heady and infectious mix of kitsch, visual pizzazz and heart that would have reinvigorated the flagging Korean romcom genre, had anyone dared to follow his lead. But there’s no one quite like Lee and he’s had to blaze his own Technicolor trail ever since.

All the promise he showed in that debut has crystallised in his defining and deliriously entertaining third film Killing Romance, a glorious and abundant mix of absurd humour and karaoke musical, suffused with a love of B-moviedom and a beating heart, that gradually grows and grows until it leaps out from the screen, bearhugs you and sucks you right back in with it.

CONFESSION TIME - I spent an afternoon on the set of Killing Romance after I was invited to walk on for a bit role (it’s so small that people who know me haven’t even noticed me in the film). Does that colour my view of my film? Personally I don’t think so, but I leave it up to you whether you believe that or not. Right, moving on.

It’s the story of a fading actress suckered into a marriage with a tyrant, who teams up with her fan neighbour to free her from said husband. That simple synopsis has ample room to luxuriate in a few very clear themes, among them toxic masculinity, broken dreams and the lives of the marginalised living under the boot of society.

Local critics have had a very mixed response to the film, troublingly echoing the reactions to films like Save the Green Planet and Castaway on the Moon, box office bombs that would later be embraced as cult classics. Many have called it a Korean riff on Wes Anderson, as if the tweed suit cineaste had a monopoly on comedies that care about mise-en-scène.

There’s certainly some Anderson in there, but you could just as easily namecheck Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies and the works of Seijun Suzuki, the list goes on, and still not be able to convey what the film does and more importantly what it feels like. Given its giddy love of cinema, visual inventiveness, heart-on-sleeve earnestness and willingness to break conventions, it provides an electric cinematic charge that is not unlike that given off by the films of S.S. Rajamouli. It’s as infectious as RRR, though perhaps more in step with his earlier film Eega.

Leading the cast are Lee Ha-nee, Lee Sun-kyun and Gong Myung in three utterly distinctive performances. An eye-opening Lee Ha-nee throws herself tooth and nail into the part of Hwang Yeo-rae, with a physical and emotional performance that draws our laughter and empathy in equal measure. Bright and wide-eyed, Gong Myung plays repeat college exam failer Bum-woo, who’s sincere love for Yeo-rae and ‘Yeoraeism’ wins us over almost instantly. And Lee Sun-kyun is a riot as the grand caricature Jonathan Na, a macho and moustachioed monster who saunters through the film’s colourful sets, lilting his way through his character’s bizarrely captivating Korean-English dialogue.

“It’s good!”, he croons again and again. No Jonathan, it’s VERY good.

Korean cinema has scaled peak after peak over the last 20 years, but save for a handful of filmmakers with relative freedom to do what they want, the industry has been struggling to foster distinctive new voices. Aside from being a remarkable film, Killing Romance is all the more special because it’s the kind of film that doesn’t get made in today’s safe Korean commercial arena anymore.

I hope it isn’t another 20 years before I get that special feeling again but until then, please please please do not miss the chance to feel it for yourself if this sensational spectacle plays in a cinema near you.

To keep up with the best in Korean film check out MKC's reviews and features, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.


  1. I haven't heard of this movie before, maybe I should watch it. It is surprising that Europeans pay little attention to Korean cinema, because there are many pearls at the heart of it.

  2. Glad to have another review, Pierce!

  3. I just saw it yesterday at th Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival, in Switzerland, and fell in love with it. It's so refreshing, surprising, but also make you think about social issues that are quite universal. All carachters are good. But Jo Na is very, very, very good.