Friday, November 20, 2009

ContemporAsian: My Dear Enemy

Japan’s decade-long economic downturn has one advantage. Every contemporary film and novel created during that period now feels timely 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), which starts a week-long run today at the MoMA.

Set in Lee’s Seoul rather than Azuko’s Tokyo, the Korean economy has done no favors for single thirty-something Hee-su. As Enemy opens, she needs money rather badly, so when she gets a line on the slacker ex-boyfriend she once loaned the equivalent of $3,500, she moves in to collect the old debt. 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 detours along the way, as well as a host of quirky 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 strange apartments. There is big-time history between them, but the audience only learns the broad strokes of their failed relationship. Jeon Do-yeon and Ha Jung-woo are absolutely convincing as the mismatched exes (Hee-su and Byung-woon, respectively), subtly conveying the chemistry which initially brought them together, as well as the frictions and annoyances that ultimately drove them apart. A rising star who won best actress honors at the 2007 Cannes Festival (for Secret Sunshine), Jeon’s finely nuanced performance is particularly memorable, expressing the mounting desperation as well as the considerable regrets 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 also gets a big assist from Kim Jeong-beom’s sprightly 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 has a universal appeal. It is a handsomely produced film, featuring an especially honest and emotionally direct performance by Jeon Do-yeon. It opens today (11/20) as part of MoMA’s ongoing ContemporAsian film series.