Wednesday, March 21, 2012

ND/NF ’12: Romance Joe

Even in Korea, the movie business is a tough racket. It disillusions people something fierce. However, the characters in Lee Kwang-kuk’s directorial feature debut might have been that way before they got into the industry. They also might be each other or possibly just passing their stories off as their own. Let the narrative games begin when Lee’s Romance Joe (trailer here), screens at the 2012 New Directors/New Films.

This will get complicated. Our first narrator will be Seo Dam, but as an aspiring screenwriter, his storytelling skills cannot compare to someone who has seen a bit of life, like Re-ji, who works for a coffeehouse, whose motto might as well be “coffee, tea, or me.” The parents of a long struggling assistant director have come to his friend Seo Dam fearing their absent son may have committed suicide, just like Woo Joo-hyun, a popular actress with whom he once worked.

As they mill about wondering what to do next, Seo Dam tells them the story of his new screenplay, in which a young boy arrives at Re-ji’s establishment looking for his long lost mother. Simultaneously, Re-ji delivers coffee and hard sells her services to Lee, a screenwriter-director in need of inspiration. She gets him to bite with the tale of “Romance Joe,” a depressed filmmaker who previously checked into the same hotel with suicidal intentions. She had inadvertently walked in on the man while making a delivery with the young boy from Seo Dam’s screenplay. As Romance Joe warms to her, he tells her an episode from his youth, when he fell in love with the haunting Kim Cho-hee after unwanted notoriety drove her to also attempt suicide.

Is Re-ji also the long lost mother of the boy in the screenplay, because they both once tried to end it all by cutting their wrists, just like Kim Cho-hee? This question will be definitively answered. Is Woo Joo-hyun also Kim Cho-hee? Is Re-ji Kim Cho-hee as well? No, most likely not (but don’t take my word for it). It appears safe to assume Re-Ji is Re-ji, whether appearing as subject or narrator and then subject again. Likewise, the missing assistant director is pretty clearly established to be Romance Joe. As for the sequestered director Kim, since Re-ji compliments him on his ironic approach to narrative, he seems the more likely fictional analog to Lee Kwang-kuk than Romance Joe.

That took more time to distill than you want to know. Yet, RJ is a tragic love story at heart, presenting an unlikely vehicle for such bravura postmodern gamesmanship. In contrast, a cerebral mystery like Mariano Llinás’ head-reeling Extraordinary Stories leads itself to such an approach quite well, because viewers do not resent have information withheld from them and perspectives fiddled with.

In a way, RJ is like a set of deliberately mismatched Russian dolls that do not quite fit within each other. Yet, the drama is so genuinely earnest, particularly that of the young lovers, it still pulls viewers in, even with the constant narrative shifts. Lee Chae-eun is quite remarkable, equally convincing and heartbreaking as the teenaged and thirtysome Kim Cho-hee. Yet, it is Shin Dong-mi who really makes the film sing. It is a star-making turn, appealingly wry or saucy, depending on the circumstances. Unfortunately, the relative blandness of several male cast members does not help viewers looking for hooks to grab onto, but impressive young David Lee develops some poignant chemistry with the older Lee Chae-eun.

No matter how viewers respond to RJ, it is a film that will stick with them, daring them to make conclusions about what they saw and when it happened. Lee Kwang-kuk rather subversively deconstructs Korean tearjerkers like Il Mare (ill-advisedly remade by Hollywood as The Lake House), but it is Shin and the other Lees, David and Chae-eun, who really make it work. Recommended for adventurous film snobs, Romance Joe screens this Saturday (3/24) at MoMA and Monday (3/26) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of New Directors/New Films 41.