DAVID LEE AND KIM CHO-HUI IN ROMANCE JOEA plot that mocks plot Romance Joe/Lo-maen-seu Jo
, an intricate 115-minute puzzler written and directed by young Korean filmmaker Lee Kwang-kuk, has an interconnected plotline. It begins with the parents (Kim Su-ung, Park Hye-jin) of a longtime assistant director coming to Seoul to see him but learning from his friend Seo Dam (Kim Dong-hyeon) that he has become depressed by the suicide of the actress actress Wu Ju-hyeon and has disappeared. He recounts the plot of his own screenplay and tries to sell it to them. Meanwhile filmmaker Lee (Jo Han-cheol), maker of the hit film The Good Guy
, has been dumped by his producer Gwon (Baek Ik-nam) in the countryside Mt. Godong Motel to force him to finish his next script. Lee is blocked, so when he gets into conversation with the tea-house "hostess" Re-ji (Shin Dong-m) when she brings coffee, he takes up her offer to tell him some good stories if he will hire her for the night.
Re-ji tells about coming upon a guy known as "Romance Joe" (Kim Yeong-pil), a longtime assistant director who became depressed as the result of the suicide of popular actress Wu Ju-hyeon and has come to her little town to commit suicide himself. She stops him. He in turn recalls to her when he was a young boy (David Lee), rescuing a schoolmate, Kim Cho-hui (Lee Chae-eun) who had been about to slit her
wrists in the woods after sleeping with a classmate. He later spent time with Kim and fell in love with her.
Meanwhile, to pass the time, as mentioned Seo Dam is telling his friend's parents the story of a script he's working on, It
tells about a boy (Ryu Ui-hyeon) who came looking for his long-lost mother Cho-hui at the Arirang Teahouse run by Re-ji. Meanwhile, in Re-ji's story to director Lee, Romance Joe and she meet again when drunk one night and end up in bed together. Romance Joe also ran into a feisty kid who is looking for his mother, having been for some time raised by a relative. In a restaurant the boy meets a small-town hooker, Re-j, who slightly knew his mother. Romance Joe eventually learns that the boy's mother is his first love, Cho-Hee (Lee Chai-eu). I'm telling this badly. The various scenes and stories interconnect, but perhaps not quite. They intentionally leave one somewhat puzzled. (I'm indebted to former, recently fired, Variety
film critic Derek Elley, whose knowledgable summary in Film Business Asia
clarified plot details for me.) The movie director decides to turn Romance Joe's story into a movie, but the story doesn't turn out the way he expected.
-- a festival blurb.
It may come as no great surprise to hear that Lee Kwang-kuk worked as first assistant director with Hong Sang-soo, on such films as Tale of Cinema
, Woman on the Beach
, Like You Know It Al
, and Hahaha
, from 2005 to 2010. The focus on heavy drinking and love affairs and on film directors with ego, writing, and women problems is familiar from Hong. So is the focus on talking indoor scenes that are mostly one-on-one, and the straightforward shooting (in this case by Jee Yune-jeong). And, more importantly here, so is the use of what Gavin Smith, of Film Comment,
in a Rotterdam comment on this film, calls
"Hong’s blindsiding structural gambits." Smith says Lee "takes them at least one step beyond into a mise en abyme of nested stories and characters. . . The beauty of this playful kudzu-like proliferation of story strands," Smithh concludes, "is that while there are obvious links and connections to be made, it leaves the viewer pleasurably dangling in a no-man’s-land of irresolution in which the remembered and the made-up can’t quite be reconciled into a coherent whole. It’s a shaggy-rabbit-hole story, so to speak."
Certainly Lee carries things narratively further than Hong. In describing his process in making Romance Joe
, he asks (in the press notes) why we need stories, why we're so dependent on them. In this film he seems to seek to abolish stories by telling stories
. While Hong Sang-soo's narrative lines sometimes seem rambling and unexpected, Lee's here are, in the words of Jeon Chan-il, the programmer at the Pusan International Film Festival, in his commentary on Romance Joe
, "monumentally complex" and "even more disjointed, even more abstract, than his teacher's" (Hong's). Jeon finds "severe irony" in Lee's questioning of the need for story while doing nothing but playing with storytelling. Jeon also notes the similarity to Hong in the meta-film approach of a film about a filmmaker seeking to write or complete a screenplay. But he concludes that this film "doesn’t really come across like ‘an imitation of Hong Sang-soo’." Indeed this is fair to say. Lee is not a mere copycat. Hong has given Lee a ready-made vocabulary and grammar, but the sentences Lee forms using them are his.
The scenes in Romance Joe
are lively and engaging, for example the ones with the waitress and the filmmaker, who seem to achieve instant intimacy, and the feisty boy looking for his mother. Despite the liveliness of individual scenes, it may be harder than with Hong to watch the film with an overarching comprehension, hard to understand the relation between them, and I'm not the only one who thinks so, if Pusan programmer Jeon Chan-il finds the plotting "monumentally complex" and "even more disjointed, even more abstract" than that of Hong Sang-soo. In fact it's hard not to think that Lee is trying to baffle the viewer, and probably make fun of the viewer's desire for a coherent plot line. But he doesn't seem to have quite achieved that. One Rotterdam commenter felt the film appeals to the mind too much and not to the heart. Lee's effect is arguably even more intellectual than Hong's. Hong's greater narrative consistency lets one develop more feelings toward main characters, ironically viewed though they may be.
But Derek Elley, an astute critic, thinks just the opposite. He thinks that though "the game element is still present" as in Hong, Romance Joe
"resonates on an emotional level much more than many of Hong's lighter films, thanks to a tip-top cast that manages to draw characters who are not simply marionettes in an elaborate directorial game." Elley acknowledges that Romance Joe "often requires major concentration to keep all three interlocking stories in one's head as the film freely cross-cuts between them." But he insists (and has proven, pretty much) that "it does all (kind of) finally make sense, and Lee's direction matches the precision of his writing." Elley wants to emphasize his interpretation that Lee's film is rigorously logical and interconnected and so he calls the last sequence, which casts doubt on the reality of what's gone before, "throwaway" and "unnecessary in the circumstances."
That is a bit arbitrary on Elley's part. It seems to me the "meta" element is primary to Lee, and though his scenes are clear, lively, and emotional, what he's doing with them is very much meta-fiction, narrative about narrative -- something that happened in literature in the Sixties, and has come to cinema later in this kind of sophisticated and dense form.
Is Lee's film radical, or just a screenplay in need of further editing? In any case, Lee seems to know very well how to work with actors (including the boy) and the individual scenes are entertaining to watch. They would just be more entertaining if they developed a more coherent rhythm or followed a more meaningfully interconnected structure -- a structure that could be better perceived as one watches. Hong Sang-soo's last couple of films have seemed increasingly self-indulgent, as if he is reaching a self-referential dead end. Lee Kwang-kuk may have taken a flying leap beyond that dead end, if he can sustain the local audience's interest, as the audience prize at Pusan suggests he did this time. Romance Joe
debuted at Pusan in early October 2011 and was shown in the Tiger series at Rotterdam in January 2012. It is also part of the joint MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center series, New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review. The public ND/NF screenings of the film are scheduled at these two places and times:Saturday, March 24th | 6:15 PM | MoMA
Monday, March 26th | 8:30 PM | FSLC