It really has been far too long since I watched a Son Ye-jin movie, although to be perfectly frank I was not expecting an awful lot from this one. My gut feel about Korean Movies is that they had been somewhat lacking over the last couple of years, but it turns out that there were a couple of rather special little films that got released at the back end of last year that escaped my notice. Could this be one of them? Read on!
In “Chilling Romance” struggling Street Magician Jo-goo (Lee Min-ki) is inspired by a strange girl he meets in the street to create a really successful stage show based on Ghosts. He employs the girl, Yeo-ri (Son Ye-jin) to act as the Ghost, but she never really takes part in the extra-curricular activities of the wider team. She is sullen, hardly speaks, and always has an excuse as to why she cannot go out for an after show drink. We see that she lives a solitary life, living alone, and sleeping in a tent erected in her living room, communicating only with her family and friends via the telephone. It soon becomes clear that Yeo-ri harbours a dark secret – she is constantly visited by Ghosts! Occasionally she helps these restless spirits onto their final resting place, but one seems particularly interested in her. When one night she is finally convinced to go out with her team, she gets spectacularly drunk, and starts a series of events that leads Jo-goo to become part of her life, and a tentative romance starts. However, we find out the truth behind Yeo-ri’s predicament – she was involved in a terrible bus accident, and she was saved from the Grim Reaper at the expense of her best friend – who is the Ghost that constantly haunts her, and drives everyone away. Can Jo-goo and Yeo-ri work together and become a couple despite the actions of this otherworldly pest?
I will admit, I only really took a look at this one because of the Magic connection initially, but very quickly the film started to totally drag me in, and by the end I was utterly enchanted by it. It is everything that a Korean Romance used to be – a little bit amusing, a gentle star-crossed romance, with a total curve ball of a genre shift. In this case, we have a horror film. Sort of. There are a number of set pieces that are actually very scary and terrifying in a K-Horror kind of way (Long Haired Girls, Chubby Faced School boys, all noise and atmosphere rather than gore). The film manages to integrate these well, along with the very touching romance (Yeo-ri is terrified of losing those she gets close to, Jo-goo is understandably terrified of the Ghosts). It is also seriously amusing at times, especially the comic relief provided by Yeo-ri’s long distance friends, who are never slow to offer her advice.
Son Ye-jin is an actress I have had mixed feelings about in the past. She is tremendously attractive, but so often she appears terribly haughty, and frankly is nothing more than self-confident eye candy. However, in this she is brilliant – she is a girl haunted not only by Spirits, but by the loss of her friend and family, and totally pulls off the fact she is shut off emotionally from the world. Yet at the same time, when she is relaxed and in her element, she is quite capable of being understanding, caring, and confident. This is the best thing I have seen her in since “The Classic”.
Lee Min-ki impressed me a lot in “Quick” a few months ago, and again he seems to be a rather exciting talent in the unusual leading man role. Rather angular and skinny, he isn’t your normal hunky lead, but he does seem to possess charisma. He certainly plays second fiddle here, but he does work well both as the confident Stage Performer, strong Boss, and scared boyfriend. I am not sure he would ever work well in a more serious drama, but these last two performances in what are popcorn fare have been an unexpected treat.
To make a film like this is a difficult balancing act, mixing your classic Korean Romance with moments of rather good horror, but the film delivers in spades. Not only that, it actually bothers to go underneath the covers of the characters, whether they be Ghosts or Humans, even some of the supporting characters, although not as well drawn as our two leads, get moments to shine. I especially loved Jo-goo’s partner who gets most of the best lines. Sure a fair bit of the story is possibly things we have seen before (the couple split up, and only a last minute intervention could possibly get them together), but it manages to succeed in delivering a conclusion that makes the previous two hours worthwhile, as well as providing the biggest laugh of the entire movie as the credits roll.
What it is, is a perfect date movie. It is a film about love, and the difficulties that two people can have, that have to be overcome before having a couple’s mobile calling plan. By adding in the scares, it means that there is an opportunity for the couple to hold on to each other. I loved this mix. I just wish I had seen it before the turn of the year, as it would have easily made my Top 10. Son Ye-jin is back on form, and I think a star may be born in Lee Min-ki. Highly recommended.