Remember a few years back, when Korean Cinema was full of touching romantic comedies, all seasoned with a healthy dollop of melodrama? For some reason those heady days of the early Korean Wave seem to have faded, and whilst a couple of movies have impressed me, I have to say I came to this one with lowish expectations. The appearance of Lee Min-ki was my main draw, just about the only young Korean actor that I enjoy enough to be tempted to try his films sight unseen. So, once again, will it be a bland disappointment, or a surprise treat?
“Very Ordinary Couple” is in short the story of the relationship between Young (Kim Min-hee) and Dong-hee (Lee Min-ki). We meet them at an unusual time. They both work at the same Bank, and have had a secret relationship for a while, but they have recently broken up, albeit for vaguely unspecified reasons. This obviously causes some friction in the office (though most co-workers have no idea). They both try to move on, Young having an ill-judged one night stand with another co-worker, and Dong-hee meeting a much younger student. Unshockingly though, they both have feelings for each other, and after a series of both humorous and uncomfortable mishaps, the couple get together again, this time without the pressures of secrecy. The problem for them is, that they simply never got to working out the root cause of their original breakup – Dong-hee’s temper and lack of commitment, and Young’s frustration at having to compromise. Our couple is maybe doomed to repeat the same mistakes all over again.
Now this one was a complete treat. I really did not see that coming. I have to admit, I was a little wary of the framing device of the film (the workplace is subject to a documentary being filmed, which means quite often characters are being interviewed), but actually it worked in an interesting way – people actually said what they thought they should be saying when in the documentary, and it was the real world actions that actually spoke about what was really going on.
Whilst it may not tread the traditional format of the rom-com, it is funny quite often, usually when Lee Min-ki is on screen, having a drunken tirade. But to me, what is important about this film is how it is brave enough to say – you know what? Not all couples are meant to be together. Whatever the attraction, whatever their blood types. Some couples just are simply not compatible. There doesn’t have to be other people involved, there doesn’t have to be some secret illness. Relationships take compromise, but not everyone is capable of that. I know it sounds sad, but this dose of realism I actually found refreshing.
It is also a lesson on trust. You might tell someone your Facebook password, or have a cute joint mobile telephone plan. But people get funny when they are feeling rejected or have been hurt. Whilst I am very guilty of being a hopeless romantic, I think the film has important truths at play.
Lee Mink-ki brings the humour, but to be frank he isn’t the most likeable of characters here. The real star is Kim Min-hee. The only thing I have seen her in before is “Actresses” (which was assistant-directed by the Director of this, Roh Doek). She gives an amazing performance as a girl who is often loveable, but also capable of pettiness, anger and jealousy. And whilst she does cry a couple of times during the film, her eventual breakdown at a rain-soaked Amusement Park (yes, those Korean Rom-Com tropes of rainy days and Amusement Parks are given a little re-appraisement here), is totally believable.
Other performances are perfectly fine, as is a c-plot about another affair, which mirrors our main story without being neither too similar of contradictory to the overall message of the film. The framing technique is also well handled, and importantly gives us a reason for the film’s coda, set some months later. And whilst it has the slight feel of a happy ending, or at least one full of hope, it also hammers home the truth that people just keep making the same mistakes.
Reading this, it looks like I am a bit down on love and romance. That really isn’t the case. But I just found it refreshing to see a film about a couple who whilst obviously loving each other, simply were not meant to be together. One where people didn’t compromise who they are for the sake of being with someone. And one where the collapse of the relationship was nothing more than a realisation… with no need for one of the characters to fall from grace in some way.
This is a brilliant movie, touching, truthful, brave. But it never feels preachy. Whilst it probably isn’t a film to take in on a first date, it comes as Highly recommended.