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 hostility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간) – ★★★★☆

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간)

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간)

Typically in the romance genre, the manner in which love begins is through trite happenstance – an accidental injury; a misunderstanding; a hot tub time machine. Not so in Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간), which buckles all conventions in the development of love. 

The romantic drama features a rebellious suicide survivor who, with regular visits to jail at the behest of her Catholic nun aunt, becomes enamored with a death row inmate. Far removed from traditional representations of romance, Maundy Thursday is a riveting cinematic delight, a highly character-driven film that exemplifies the importance of sharing sadness as well as happiness in the creation of love.

Moon Yu-jeong (Lee Na-young (이나영) is a suicide survivor, presenting a particular problem for her devoutly Catholic family and overbearing, selfish mother. Yu-jeong’s aunt, a Catholic nun, persuades her niece to join her on her weekly volunteer work at a prison, attempting to give hope and salvation to the prisoners. Reluctantly agreeing, Yu-jeong and her aunt meet rapist and murderer Jung Yeon-soo (Kang Dong-won (강동원). Initially incredibly hostile towards each other, the pair gradually reveal more about their tortured pasts, their hopes, their fears, and become irrevocably changed through the love that blossoms between them.

After her latest suicide attempt, Yu-jeong is sickened by the selfishness of her family

After her latest suicide attempt, Yu-jeong is sickened by the selfishness of her family

Maundy Thursday is a highly compelling and poignant romantic drama that embraces the darker and more tragic aspects of society in its depiction of love. Such a philosophy is ultimately what makes the film so unique and enthralling, as screenwriters Jang Min-seok (장민석) and Park Eun-yeong (박은영) never shy from exploring how character evolves through the unfair machinations of society, which director Song Hae-seong (송해성) wonderfully conveys. Working class Yeon-su has been abandoned by his mother and delved into a life of crime that has led to his incarceration; Yu-jeong is from a privileged upper-middle class background yet the overbearing Catholicism and rigid lifestyle has left her scarred. Technically two such protagonists should never become intertwined yet the narrative is so organic and flows so well that their meetings – which occur every Thursday – and the development of their relationship are natural and believable. Scenes in which the duo share their emotional pain, eloquently told through dialogue and flashbacks, are simultaneously heartbreaking and endearing revealing not only the suffering endured by people of all walks of life but how such turmoil can bring them together once shared. Acknowledging personal trauma, confronting it, and sharing it with someone special are the driving forces within Maundy Thursday, and the affection and love that blossoms from such pain are masterfully conveyed and deeply poignant.

A social group that does not express such qualities within Maundy Thursday are members of the Catholic faith. The film wonderfully explores how the concept of religion can be taken and abused by a practicing individual with horrifying results. With the exception of the kind Catholic priests and nuns within the prison, Catholicism is represented through Yu-jeong’s family, primarily her abhorrent mother. Director Song Hae-seong (송해성) masterfully portrays the eccentric and arrogant nature of the Catholic family, with expensive ornaments adorning the rigidly structured family home, the repressed clothing style of turtle-necks and high collars, and the snobbery and ignorance in spite of family trauma. The decor within the family home are an amalgamation of reds, oranges and yellows conveying the genuine ‘hell’ that exists there, while the pale-faced black-clothed mother, who is equal parts scary and manipulative, functions as the devil. Yet only Yu-jeong perceives the hypocrisy of her family, chastised for stating truths to people more concerned with rhetoric and status. Yu-jeong’s loneliness and rebellious nature are emphasized to such a degree that it is impossible not to empathize with the character, making her relationship with inmate Yeon-su all the more touching.

The hosility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

The hostility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

Lee Na-young is absolutely captivating in her performance as Yu-jeong. The actress masterfully conveys the tumultuous emotional well deep within the character, from her agitated moments of familial defiance and indifference to criticism through to more challenging maternal confrontations and expressions of past anguish. Lee Na-young’s performance is by far the most captivating, compelling and poignant aspect of Maundy Thursday and as such the film is ultimately her story.

Kang Dong-won takes more of a supportive role in his performance as Yeon-su, yet he also conveys a staggering emotional range. His ill-mannered behaviour and resolute desire to die are highly engaging, yet the occurrence of more dramatic scenes such as confronting the mother of his victim and his subsequent breakdown create incredible empathy with the killer. The fashion in which Yeon-su evolves from a man without hope to finding happiness is wonderfully portrayed by the highly skilled actor.

Despite himself, Yeon-su discovers happiness due to Yu-jeong

Despite himself, Yeon-su discovers happiness due to Yu-jeong

Verdict:

The focus on societal and religious discourses, and the love that can develop through sharing personal trauma, make Maundy Thursday a unique and incredibly compelling romantic drama. The performances by the central couple are wonderful and the manner in which they develop feelings of romance are organic and highly convincing. Maundy Thursday is an excellent portrayal of alternative romance, and a poignant reminder of the value of sharing pain and happiness within a relationship.

★★★★☆

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Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon form a bond during a botched bank heist

Couples (커플즈) – ★★☆☆☆

Couples (커플즈)

Couples (커플즈)

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).

Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon form a bond during a botched bank heist

Yoo-suk and Ae-yeon form a bond during a botched bank heist

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.

Bok-nam tracks down the gold-digging Na-ri

Bok-nam tracks down the gold-digging Na-ri

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.

Gangster Byung-chan falls for Na-ri despite her love of money

Gangster Byung-chan falls for Na-ri despite her love of money

Verdict:

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.

★★☆☆☆

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