Marking the debut of writer/director Roy Lee, “Melo” is a hard-hitting Korean psychodrama which follows the trials of an unfortunate, downtrodden woman whose downward spiral ironically begins just when her life finally seems to be getting better. Having premiered at the 2012 Busan Film Festival in the Korean Cinema Today section, the film stars actress Kim Hye Na (“Cafe Noir”) in the complex lead role, with support from Lee Sun Ho (also in TV drama “The Servant”) and Kim Nam Mi (“B.E.D”).
The plot revolves around Yoon Seo (Kim Hye Na), an average woman working in a coffee shop, suffering in an abusive relationship and generally leading a dead end life with no real possibilities for the future. Everything changes when a good looking painter called Tae In (Lee Sun Ho) who frequents the coffee shop hesitantly approaches her and asks her to model for him. Though initially worried that his interest might be part of some joke or cruel scheme, Yoon Seo agrees and the two soon fall in love and open their own café together, making her happier than she’s ever been. Unfortunately, Tae In’s ex-girlfriend Seung Hee (Kim Nam Mi) shows up and announces that she’s pregnant, putting a wedge between them and slowly pushing Yoon Seo over the edge and into obsession and violence.
“Melo” is very much an intimate character study, Yoon Seo appearing in pretty much every frame, and writer/director Lee playing things out entirely from her perspective. Thanks in no small part to a strong, multi-layered performance by Kim Hye Na in the lead, who does a great job of making the most of a minimalist, though effective script, this works well, and the viewer is placed firmly behind her eyes and in her head as she struggles to cope. From her obvious passivity and insecurity at the start of the film, through her confusion as to why Tae In likes her, and finally to her descent into anxiety and crazed paranoia, the film is tense and frequently uncomfortable, with a definite air of doom hanging over the proceedings.
It’s gripping and quietly emotional stuff, and while the film does veer more into Kim Ki Duk art house style territory towards the end, Lee keeps things on track for a climax that’s no less shattering for its dour inevitability. The film thankfully has more to offer than a depressing depiction of loneliness and misery, and Lee uses Yoon Seo and the premise to touch on the experiences of women in modern Korean society, and the pressures, economic, emotional and otherwise, which can have such a far-reaching effect on so many lives.
In genre terms, “Melo” is unsurprisingly reminiscent of Polanski’s “Repulsion” and other female-centric psycho dramas, both thematically and in its visuals and use of symbolism, in particular during the final act. Lee shows confidence as a first time helmer, and for a relatively low-budget indie the film looks good, effectively mixing the grimy shabbiness of Yoon Seo’s everyday life with the purity and cleanliness of Tae In’s art studio apartment. Lee also shows talent during his choreography and framing of the film’s many sex scenes, which though graphic feature as much attention being paid to faces and expressions as bodies, focusing on the emotions and meaning that the couplings have for Yoon Seo. These scenes, along with several instances of bloody violence, help to keep the film moving along, as like many first time directors, Lee does over-indulge himself at times, letting the pace drop off, fading to black too often, and throwing in a couple of unnecessary montage sequences that feel very out of place. With a running time of two hours already likely to prove a bit of a challenge for some viewers, these slips do make the film feel somewhat ponderous, and as a result it’s more likely to appeal to the indie or art house crowd rather than general audiences.
This isn’t really a criticism however, and “Melo” is a very accomplished Korean indie and a highly engaging, if dark and somewhat nihilistic character study. Anchored by Kim Hye Na’s excellent lead performance, it’s a promising debut for Roy Lee, written and directed with assurance, and well worth the time of patient viewers.
Roy Lee (director)/Roy Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Hye-na