“Petty Romance” from director Kim Jung Hoon is a Korean romantic comedy with a difference, focusing on the world of erotic manhwa as a writer and artist strike up a relationship while working on a bawdy comic. For its all-important couple, the film features charismatic actor Lee Seon Gyun, known for the TV drama “Pasta” and “Coffee Prince”, and actress Choi Kang Hee (“My Scary Girl”), who previously starred together in the series “My Sweet Seoul”. Their paring again proved popular with audiences, with the film emerging as one of the biggest domestic box office hits of 2010, and recently enjoying success on the international circuit, playing to acclaim at the 2011 London Terracotta Film Festival.
The fun starts with Lee Seon Gyun as struggling manhwa artist Jung Bae, whose latest work ends up being used for scrap paper by a distinctly unimpressed publisher. Eager to make his mark, he decides to enter an adult comic competition, which has a top prize of $100,000 plus a lucrative international publishing deal. Reluctantly realising that his stories are below par, he advertises for a writer, and teams with Da Rim (Choi Kang Hee), who has just been fired from her job as a magazine columnist. Although the two are very quickly at odds as to the direction their erotic comic should take, creativity and romance gradually blossom, leading to all manner of wacky complications.
Whereas most Korean romantic comedies tend to simply hang themselves on a daft premise, “Petty Romance” actually makes very effective use of its manhwa theme, with director Kim using it to really bring the film to life. This takes the form of a number of neatly animated sequences, which depict fantasy tangents of the two protagonists’ imaginations, as well as the comic which they are working on. Since the manhwa is based around the concept of a barely clothed female assassin and her various conquests, this does result in a lot of cartoon nudity and graphic sexual situations and dialogue, plus some surprisingly bloody action and violence. All of this works very well, making the film far more fast moving and fun than most other romantic comedies, while giving it a different feel and an appeal beyond the genre.
Whilst the live scenes don’t quite feature the same level of bawdiness, the film is certainly an adult affair, dealing quite openly with sex, and with Da Rim’s lack of bedroom experience being one of the key plot and gag points. At the same time, though Kim plays much of this for laughs, he avoids anything too crude or exploitative, and the film is very funny in a pleasingly urbane manner, benefitting from one of the best genre scripts in recent memory. Although there’s inevitably a great deal of comic bickering between the leads, the film never crosses into clichéd “Sassy Girl” territory, with both Jung Bae and Da Rim giving as good as they get. As such, the film makes for an amusing battle of the sexes, and one which doesn’t openly pander to either female or male viewers, which again helps to set it apart.
The central romance itself is handled in a surprisingly mature fashion, never pointlessly manipulating the viewer by pretending that the two won’t get together at some stage. The courtship between Jung Bae and Da Rim builds amusingly, though also convincingly, through their early flirtations, banter and misunderstandings about whether or not they like each other, through to dealing with actual relationship problems. Although the film is essentially predictable, it does at least have a final act which doesn’t get too sappy, and thanks in no small part to extremely likeable performances from both Lee Seon Gyun and Choi Kang Hee, it has a real sense of chemistry along with a handful of genuinely emotional and heartfelt moments.
All of this combines to make “Petty Romance” easily the best Korean romantic comedy of the last couple of years, and one of the very few which should also be enjoyed by those who wouldn’t normally sully themselves with the genre. Well made, amusing and with some entertaining use of animation, the film is hugely enjoyable throughout and proves that with a little thought, effort and heart it is still very possible to make something special within such an often lazily misused format.
Jeong-Hoon-Il Kim (director) / Jeong-Hoon-Il Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Seon-gyun Lee … Jeong-bae
Kang-hee Choi … Da-rim
Do-bin Baek … Min-ho
Won-jong Lee … Lee Se-yong