Saturday, May 02, 2009

Tribeca ’09: My Dear Enemy

Japan’s decade-long economic downturn has one advantage. Every contemporary film and novel from that period suddenly feels in-the-now to the rest of the world. Such is the case with Lee Yoon-ki’s Korean adaptation of Japanese author Taira Azuko’s novelette, My Dear Enemy (trailer here), screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Set in Seoul rather than Tokyo, as Enemy opens, the Korean economy has done no favors for single thirty-something Hee-su. In fact, she needs money quite badly, so when she gets a line on the slacker ex-boyfriend she regrettably loaned the equivalent of $3,500, she moves in to collect. Of course, the preternaturally irresponsible Byung-woon does not have two cents to his name, but he promises to raise the money from his lucky friends. However, he insists Hee-su come along for the ride.

For the rest of the day, Hee-su has the awkward experience of meeting a parade of Byung-woon’s ex-girlfriends, many of whom seem rather out of his league, like the well-heeled hostess (played by Oh Ji-eun). However, they all seem willing to float Byung-woon yet another loan to retire his debt with Hee-su, while he seems to take perverse enjoyment in the asking. Naturally, their mission encounters inevitable pitfalls along the way, as well as a host of extreme personality types. There are also hints of the old magic between the former lovers, as well as plenty of fresh reminders of their incompatibility.

Hee-su and Byung-woon spend nearly the entire film forced together in confined spaces, like her car, the subway, or a strange apartment. There is big-time history between them, but the audience only learns the broad strokes of their failed relationship. Jeon Do-yeon and Ha Jeong-woo are absolutely convincing as the mismatched exes. They richly convey the chemistry which initially brought them together, as well as the frictions and annoyances that ultimately drove them apart. Jeon’s performance is particularly nuanced, expressing the mounting desperation of the normally reserved Hee-su.

Lee Yoon-ki is a sensitive director, who lovingly frames his shots. He lets each scene play out at a natural, unhurried pace, but the results never feel sluggish or self-indulgent. He gets a big assist from Kim Jeong-beom’s spritely swing-oriented jazz soundtrack, which prevents the film’s momentum from ever dragging.

While Enemy might be small in scope, its “deal with the ex” storyline should have universal appeal. It is a handsomely crafted film, featuring an admirably honest and emotionally direct performance by Jeon Do-yeon. It screens again at Tribeca on Sunday (5/3).