Intertwined tales of romance between couples seemingly unconnected from each other has become a regular feature of the romantic-comedy, although few contain the charm of Love, Actually (2003) which arguably kick-started the current trend. While by no means a perfect film, Love, Actually succeeded in depicting a variety of couples from disparate socio-economic backgrounds, representing the various problems they face within a highly romanticized London during Christmas time.
The holy trinity of compelling couples, romantic city and endearing holiday period are notably absent from Jeong Yong-ki’s (정용기) Couples (커플즈). Aside from a handful of humorous moments, Couples is lacking in both comedy and more importantly romance due to the shallow and contrived protagonists and events within.
Yoo-suk (Kim Joo-hyeok (김주혁), a tea shop owner, is incredibly sad following the sudden disappearance of his fiancee Na-ri (Lee Si-yeong (이시영) two months prior. Worse still he used all means available in order to buy a house for their future, which is increasingly bleak as creditors close in and minor accidents result in threats of legal action. Desperate, Yoo-suk hires private investigator and best friend Bok-nam (Oh Jeong-se (오정세) to find Na-ri. Meanwhile Yoo-suk forms a relationship with traffic officer Ae-yeon (Lee Yoon-ji (이윤지) during a botched bank heist, herself a recent singleton from a lying ex. Bok-nam manages to track down Na-ri and becomes infatuated with her, but her gold-digging ways have resulted in a new partner, gangster Byung-chan (Kong Hyeong-jin (공형진).
If the above synopsis sounds unnecessarily contrived, then you’d be right as Couples quite literally includes all manner of bizarre set-pieces for the sake of comedy which rarely pays off. Worse still, there is no attempt to portray events such as bank heists, near-miss car crashes, involvement with private investigators and gangsters and so forth with any originality which further emphasises their manufactured inclusion within the narrative. Such scenes also detract from any notion of romance as the inorganic nature of the multiple plot strands conveys a lack of genuine connection between the couples, and as such renders them all as unconvincing or compelling.
Director Jeong Yong-ki is competent throughout, however his decision to craft the narrative as non-linear is highly problematic as the editing between different couples and timelines destroys any sense of romance that has been conveyed prior. Worse still are the inserts of interviewed couples which add nothing to the film and quickly become an annoyance, as often the couples interviewed have only a minor connection to the main story and are included for the sake of cheap comedy, such as tripping and pulling a women’s skirt down.
Where Couples does succeed is in the initial portrayal of Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon. Ridiculous scenarios aside, the slow and occasionally humorous moments that occur are endearing, with sharing their tales of heartache further solidifying their romantic development. Private investigator Bok-nam is also comical, fancying himself as a Humphrey Bogart/Batman-esque sleuth who is routinely foiled and humiliated.
In terms of performance, the central couple played by Kim Joo-hyeok and Lee Yoon-ji are by far the best in the film and provide the most naturalized portrayal of romance – a portrayal which is later wholly undermined by the narrative in a clearly desperate endeavor for a conventional finale. Oh Jeong-se overacts his role as Bok-nam, however his style is suitable given that his entire character is a parody of masculinity and as such offers moments of comedy. Ironically for a film titled ‘Couples’, Bok-nam is the only protagonist not included in one – his unrequited infatuation notwithstanding – which is a real oversight. Lee Si-yeong is woeful as gold-digging Na-ri. Her overacting is frustratingly annoying, while her consumerist character is represented as so entirely selfish and ignorant that her quest to find real love is unengaging due to the lack of empathy. Instead Na-ri functions as a prize, a villainous woman who must be tamed by a man. This role is bestowed upon Kong Hyeong-jin as gangster Byung-chan, who performs his stoic character competently despite the lack of screen-time.
Couples is a lackluster addition to the romantic-comedy fold, due to the highly contrived narrative and absence of genuine emotion throughout. While certain scenes – notably portraying central couple Yoo-suk and Ae-young – are endearing they are halted from development through the decision to craft the film as non-linear and randomly including interview scenes from couples who have merely a passing reference to the main narrative. As such, Couples is for die-hard rom-com fans only.