Yeo-ri (여리) is a lonely and isolated woman due to the apparitions

Spellbound (AKA Chilling Romance) (오싹한 연애) – ★★★☆☆

Chilling Romance (오싹한 연애)

Spellbound (오싹한 연애)

As the oft-touted ‘Romance Queen’ of the Korean film industry, Son Ye-jin (손예진) has cinematically endured an incredible variety of events preventing her from fulfilling destiny with her one true love. In A Moment To Remember, she was shockingly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at a young age; within The Classic, she is conveyed as the reincarnated soul of her love-lorn mother. However Spellbound (AKA Chilling Romance, 오싹한 연애) offers a supernatural departure for the actress, as due to a childhood accident she has the ability to see and communicate with spirits. Understandably, the apparitions prove somewhat of an obstacle in her burgeoning relationship.

Through blending the horror, romance, and comedy genres, Spellbound attempts to offer an alternative approach to the cliched and over-saturated rom-com, employing the ghosts to poke fun at traditional notions of gender and relationships. While on occasion it succeeds, Spellbound quickly falls into the same pitfalls and stereotypes so ingrained in other examples of the genre and never fully capitalizes on the premise, resulting in a bland – and chemistry-free – addition to Son Ye-jin’s resume.

Jo-gu (Lee Min-ki (이민기) is a talented street magician, but is lacking a grand performance in which to entertain larger audiences. Upon witnessing the bleak and forlorn figure of Yeo-ri (Son Ye-jin), Jo-gu is inspired to create a horror magic act that thrills audiences in vast theaters. Yet while he and the production staff celebrate their successes, Yeo-ri constantly refrains. After a year of rejection, Jo-gu decides to investigate his muse and unwittingly stumbles upon her secret – Yeo-ri converses with spirits and her self-imposed isolation protects those around her from visitations. Yet as Jo-gu and Yeo-ri grow closer, will the ghosts prove a hinderance?

Yeo-ri (여리) is a lonely and isolated woman due to the apparitions

Yeo-ri is a lonely and isolated woman due to the apparitions

Spellbound is a perfectly competent piece of romantic cinema, yet therein lies the problem as the film does precious little to differentiate itself from other mediocre examples of the genre. From the (obviously staged) outset Spellbound squarely conveys itself as light entertainment and in doing so establishes the tone, protagonists and narrative well. The premise of a heroine who communes with the departed seemingly takes an age to finally appear on-screen, yet when it does director Hwang In-ho (황인호) is highly capable in constructing predictable but effective horror set pieces, and undermines them with comical farce to great effect. Yet bizarrely, just as the film finds its’ identity, the phantoms are jettisoned in favour of focus on the romantic development between Yeo-ri and Jo-gu. In doing so Yeo-ri is reduced from an isolated-yet-gifted woman who helps the recently departed, to yet another beautiful, lonely, poor woman who needs saving by a wealthy Prince Charming despite herself. Yeo-ri’s only sources of comfort are her best friend and a romantic novelist with whom she converses on the phone, however – atrocious acting aside – both woman are also singletons oblivious to the realities of love and dating. As such the three are continually posited as ‘incomplete’ as they each lack a partner. While intended as a form of comic relief, and occasionally raising the odd titter, the conversations between the threesome quickly become tiresome, although such scenes do allow for Son Ye-jin to reveal her calibre as a talented actress as she imparts her frustrations and fears to those closest to her.

The shift in focus from Yeo-ri’s extra-sensory abilities to the romance with Jo-gu would not be as jarring were it not for the fact that the pair have zero chemistry. As individuals they are generally quite entertaining, particularly when Yeo-ri helps spirits or when Jo-gu discovers the secret of the ghostly visitations with suitably farcical reactions. However when together the roles of both protagonists are effectively reduced to stereotypes and moved from one romantic set piece to the next, which while somewhat enjoyable on a surface level results in the artifice shining through at every plot development. Son Ye-jin is as charismatic as the narrative allows her to be, particularly during alcohol infused scenes, and she seemingly works hard to establish a rapport with Lee Min-ki. He, on the other hand, appears more preoccupied with appearing startled and bemused than in establishing chemistry with his co-star.

Jo-gu struggles to come to terms with Yeo-ri's 'gift'

Jo-gu struggles to come to terms with Yeo-ri’s ‘gift’

As Spellbound is very much light entertainment, the performances by all involved are highly tongue-in-cheek throughout, although only a select few convey this convincingly.

Unsurprisingly Son Ye-jin rises above all the cast, although it is far removed from her best work. The actress conveys the vulnerability and inner strength of her character well, and is suitably humorous during comical scenes. Due to the set pieces Son Ye-jin is generally given little room to maneuver in which to display her acting prowess, with the exception of a telephone conversation with her two girlfriends which is heart-wrenchingly emotional. The actress conveys warmth and generosity, as she diligently attempts to create rapport with her romantic lead man, which ultimately proves unfruitful.

Lee Min-ki is competent as magician Jo-gu, performing comical scenes with great timing and conveys the farcical nature of the situations well. His over-acting is well-suited to his role as a man out of his depth and struggling to make sense of his new world, and is highly entertaining in this respect. In particular, his discovery of the ghost of a young boy and the ramifications of their meeting are a real highlight of the film. Yet the real issue with the actor is his lack of chemistry with his love interest, as he exudes a stoic coldness that functions as a barrier between them. In a romantic film such as this, and the enhanced focus on the relationship over the role of the ghosts, Lee Min-ki’s frosty exterior means that Spellbound consequently falls rather flat.

As for the supporting cast, the over-acting is a mixture between amusing and cringe-inducing. As best friend Pil-dong, Park Cheol-min (박철민) exemplifies this although his final scenes threaten to steal the film completely.

Jo-gu attempts to win Yeo-ri's heart

Jo-gu attempts to win Yeo-ri’s heart

Verdict:

With a promising premise, Spellbound could have been a highly enjoyable and alternative approach to the romantic-comedy. However the specters – and Son Ye-jin’s impetus – appear all too briefly, focusing on a relationship that crucially lacks romance. While it is competently directed and acted, Spellbound is ultimately a film for fans of light-hearted rom-coms.

★★★☆☆

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Ji-hye begins reading her mother's old love letters

The Classic (클래식) – ★★★☆☆

The Classic (클래식)

The Classic (클래식)

After the incredible success of his first feature My Sassy Girl in 2001 – which depicted a contemporary and quirky tale of love – director Kwak Jae-Yong (곽재용) turned his attention to more traditional romance with his follow-up The Classic (클래식). Featuring one of the queens of the genre in the form of Son Ye-jin (손예진), The Classic is exactly as the title suggests employing conventions ranging from Cyrano de Bergerac style love letters, dual romantic narrative between the present and the nostalgic past, social and parental oppression, and a love that destiny simply refuses to let go. As such The Classic is highly cliched yet also charming portrayal of classic love, often helping to glaze over the unbalanced narrative and occasional confusion of Son Ye-jin’s dual roles with romantic scenes that are ‘classic’ in nature.

In the present, university student Ji-hye (Son Ye-jin) feels upset and lonely; she has been writing love letters to fellow student Sang-min (Jo In-Seong (조인성) at the request of her friend, yet in truth Ji-hye is also in love with the popular boy. To distract her from the sadness of her situation, Ji-hye begins reading a journal kept by her mother Joo-hee (also Son Ye-jin) about how her parents met, and soon discovers that she has a lot more in common with their story than she first realized. As the trails and tribulations of her parents classic love story unfolds, so to does Ji-hye struggle with her own relationship issues as she attempts to win over the man of her dreams.

Ji-hye begins reading her mother's old love letters

Ji-hye begins reading her mother’s old love letters

Writer/directed Kwak Jae-Yong does a great job in recreating classic scenes and sequences from romantic films, and his directorial style is highly competent throughout making for a melodramatic yet engaging experience. The premise of Ji-hye reading and learning about the love that developed between her parents and comparing it to her situation is cliched yet compelling. However the major problem with The Classic stems from the enormous imbalance between both protagonists, as Ji-hye’s contemporary story is relegated to the sidelines in favour of Joo-hee’s nostalgic tale. Such is the scale of the unevenness that it is entirely possible to forget the Ji-hye’s narrative even exists as the director focuses almost exclusively on nostalgic notions of love. This is compounded further as when the narrative does eventually venture into Ji-hye’s world she re-enacts incredibly similar situations to that experienced by her mother; Ji-hye seemingly does not learn from the journal entries to improve her own situation and as such her story is simultaneously undermined and dull. Confusion also arises with the very odd decision to cast Son Ye-jin in dual roles as mother and daughter, as the mise-en-scene and characterization are so similar it is often due to the presence of the supporting cast to confirm in what era the audience now reside. When focusing on Ji-hye’s contemporary romance it is difficult to empathise and become invested in her problematic love triangle, as the protagonists of the era are incredibly underdeveloped to the point of indifference.

Where The Classic does succeed is in the portrayal of Joo-hee’s romantic tale, featuring oppression from society and their parents, secret love letters, and battling with the guilt of deceiving a mutual friend. The struggles the couple face and overcome are engaging and poignant, just as their punishments and separations are moving. Through the nostalgic angle applied the cliches are less frustrating and more charismatic, with scenes such as catching fireflies and carrying Joo-hee due to a sprained ankle sweet-natured and innocent.

Joo-hee's story is a classic tale of romance

Joo-hee’s story is a classic tale of romance

While Son Ye-jin may very well be a romance queen, providing an exceptional performance as an Alzheimer’s sufferer in A Moment To RememberThe Classic highlights an inability to convey different characteristics in her dual roles as daughter Ji-hye and mother Joo-hee. As Son Ye-jin essentially performs the same character twice, it is incredibly difficult to distinguish which character she is performing adding confusion as to which era the audience are viewing. Frustrations aside, Son Ye-jin has her reputation for a reason and does convey innocence and heartache wonderfully and with sincerity, making Joo-hee a highly empathic and compelling character and Ji-hye – due to the lesser character development – enjoyable and interesting.

As Joo-hee’s love interest Joon-ha, Jo Seung-woo (조승우) is excellent and offers a wonderful role as both a nostalgic example of chivalry and a male counterpoint for Ji-hye, as both take on the Cyrano de Bergerac position of writing love letters for someone else. Jo Seung-woo portrays the love and desire for Joo-hee well, and more dramatic scenes with equal competence.

Ji-hye and Sang-min share a romantic moment in the rain

Ji-hye and Sang-min share a romantic moment in the rain

Verdict:

As an homage of sorts to traditional love stories, The Classic succeeds in employing an array of charming cliches that – due to the nostalgic perspective of Joo-hee’s story – are engaging and entertaining portrayals of old-school love. Yet the film stalls through the incredibly unbalanced narrative shift between the past and the present, reserving all empathy and interest in ‘the classic’ and effectively undermining Ji-hye’s contemporary story. As such The Classic is something of a mixed offering, yet it offers enough charisma to be an enjoyable tale of traditional love.

★★★☆☆

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The love between Cheol-su and Su-jin grows stronger even after marriage

A Moment to Remember (내 머리 속의 지우개) – ★★★★☆

A Moment to Remember (내 머리 속의 지우개)

A Moment to Remember (내 머리 속의 지우개)

Simultaneously released in 2004, Lee Jae-han’s (이재한) A Moment to Remember (내 머리 속의 지우개) seemingly went head-to-head with Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook in portraying a love plagued by the onset of dementia. Yet while Cassavetes’ non-linear effort primarily focused on the social inequality during 1940s America, Lee Jae-han’s film is more concerned with the devastating impact wrought by the onset Alzhemier’s disease on a young couple.

The result is one of the most emotional and compelling romantic films committed to celluloid, a poignant tale of love that never feels contrived and featuring incredible character studies in the form of the central leads. While the struggle of the later stages of the disease are kept to a minimum, A Moment to Remember is an emotional tour-de-force that would leave only the hardest of hearts unmoved.

Fashion designer Su-jin (Son Ye-jin (손예진) had intended to elope with her married boss Seo Yeong-min (Baek Jong-hak (백종학), yet at the crucial moment was abandoned at the train station. Heart-broken and humiliated, Su-jin returns to work where she is frequently the source of gossip and shunned by her peers. Despite her privileged upper-middle class lifestyle Su-jin is often clumsy and forgetful, even taking a drink from a stranger believing it to be her own. While visiting her architect father Su-jin meets poor ill-mannered carpenter and foreman Cheol-su (Jeong Woo-seong (정우성), and their mutual attraction develops into a loving relationship and later, despite opposition, to being married. As Su-jin and Cheol-su enjoy married life and support each other in ways neither knew existed, Su-jin’s memory gradually worsens and is diagnosed with a rare genetic case of Alzheimer’s disease. With her memories fading, Cheol-su and Su-jin battle the difficulties posed by the disease to remember their love.

An innocent mistake over a drink brings Su-jin and Cheol-su together

An innocent mistake over a drink brings Su-jin and Cheol-su together

Director and screenwriter Lee Jae-han does an excellent job in constructing an organic and believable romance between Su-jin and Cheol-su. So many films within the genre focus solely on the initial development of love, yet Lee Jae-han extends this further through presenting deeper emotional problems, and the attempts to heal them, in marriage. Such a philosophy is ultimately the reason why A Moment to Remember is so successful as the film never forgoes character study for the sake of contrived conventions, instead emphasizing the strengths and frailties of the central characters and the spiritual growth that occurs through their relationship. Scenes in which Su-jin’s pain from her prior affair heal, and Cheol-su’s confrontation with his mother who abandoned him, are wonderfully portrayed and convey a sincerity of love that is all too rare in representations of romance.

Lee Jae-han also deserves credit for the manner in which he tackles the portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease, which he deftly and efficiently amalgamates throughout the script. Certain scenes are incredibly nuanced, such as Su-jin fainting through stress and dropping the contents of her purse to reveal an inordinate amount of pens, while others are more overt portrayals as she loses her way home. The technical prowess during such sequences allows the audience to experience Su-jin’s confusion, providing POV shots that move in and out of focus on busy streets and rapid camera movement and editing that effectively convey her distress and terror. Following Su-jin’s official diagnosis, endearing visuals such as the labeling of items within the house emerge in conjunction with heart-breaking sequences of memory loss, making A Moment to Remember a highly profound and poignant viewing experience.

The love between Cheol-su and Su-jin grows stronger even after marriage

The love between Cheol-su and Su-jin grows stronger even after marriage

In performing such an intense form of love, Son Ye-jin as Su-jin gives is wonderful and the highlight of the film. Her subtle mannerisms convey a wealth of simultaneous emotions ranging from insecurity, strength, innocence and ambition seemingly with ease, and is an absolute delight. The actress excels during dramatic scenes as she breaks down through stress, while her blank, confused and scared expression acutely convey her suffering due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. Son Ye-jin is absolutely enthralling throughout A Moment to Remember and her utterly convincing performance forms the heart and soul of the film.

Jeong Woo-seong is also highly compelling as carpenter-turned-architect Cheol-su. His evolution of character is performed with grace and subtlety, initially brash, ill-mannered and aggressive yet through his relationship with Su-jin becoming attentive, responsible, and loving. As with Son Ye-jin, Jeong Woo-seong conveys a remarkable array of emotions within his performance varying from his hostility at a construction site, his untamed anger at his childhood, through to his adoration of Su-jin.

If there is a criticism to be made against A Moment to Remember, it is the absence of exploring the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease and the impact it presents within Chol-su and Su-jin’s relationship. While certain features of the disease are presented, the director clearly – and ironically – wants the memory of their love prior to Su-jin’s diagnosis to remain with audiences making the omission an understandable creative decision.

The rapid memory deterioration caused by Alzheimer's disease makes Su-jin confused

The rapid memory deterioration caused by Alzheimer’s disease makes Su-jin confused

Verdict:

A Moment to Remember is a wonderfully charming, poignant, and romantic film. Such potency is ultimately due to screenwriter/director Lee Jae-han’s dedication to characterization which is remarkable throughout, which Son Ye-jin and Jeong Woo-seong perform with integrity and sincerity. While more depth could have been applied to the later stages of the disease, the organic manner of the central relationship and the sensitivity in which their love is presented make A Moment to Remember an absolute must-see romantic film.

★★★★☆

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