“Romance Joe” marks the debut of writer director Lee Kwang Kuk, who served his apprenticeship by working on several films by Korean master Hong Sang Soo including “HaHaHa” and “Like You Know It All”. Unsurprisingly, the film is very much influenced by Hong’s output, revolving around a carefully constructed series of primary and secondary narratives, which intertwine and repeat each other throughout. The similarity is furthered by Lee’s use of several performers who have worked with Hong in the past, including Jo Han Cheol (“A Tale of Cinema”) and Lee Chae Eun (“Oki’s Movie”), joined by Kim Young Pil (“Rolling Home with a Bull”), Shin Dong Mi (“A Million”) and upcoming young actor David Lee (“The Front Line”). As with his mentor, the film has found Lee success at festivals at home and his abroad, winning the Citizen Reviewers’ Award at Pusan, being nominated for the Tiger Award at Rotterdam and playing at the London Film Festival in 2012.
The film opens with an elderly couple searching for their possibly missing son checking into a hotel, when one of his friends called Seo Dam (Kim Dong Hyeon, “The Yellow Sea”) arrives and starts to relate to them the details of a screenplay he is working on. From there, the film diverges off into stories within stories, with Lee (Jo Han Cheol), a film director checking into another small town hotel to work on a script being told by a coffee hostess called Ri Ji (Shin Dong Mi) the tale of Romance Joe (Kim Young Pil), another director she met some time ago when he was on the verge of suicide. This in turn leads to the story of the young Joe (now played by David Lee) and his first love Cho Hee (Lee Chae Eun), a troubled and suicidal girl who cuts her wrists in the forest. Meanwhile, Seo Dam adds another thread to the narrative, about a young boy arriving at Ri Ji’s teahouse in search of his mother.
“Romance Joe” really has a great deal in common with the works of Hong Sang Soo, the apple definitely not falling far from the tree. Lee Kwang Kuk sticks pretty closely to the usual Hong formula, the well-planned script blurring the line between fact and fiction in entertaining fashion, playfully deconstructing the relationship between the storyteller and the audience, ‘Romance Joe’ being both a possibly fictional character and a name given by Ri Ji to the man in her story. With similar figures played by the same performers appearing in the different narrative strands, Lee employs same kind of fun mirroring which Hong is well known for, and with there being plenty of drinking and social awkwardness on the agenda, the film really does at times feel like an affectionate tribute, tough in the best possible way.
To be fair, Lee does take some steps to carving out his own identity as a writer director, and the film delves into darker territory than is usual for Hong, dealing explicitly with themes of depression and suicide, which play a vital role in the plot. At the same time, the film recalls the works of indie darling Wes Anderson, showing a similar taste for shot construction and soundtrack choice, mixing the tragic and desolate with the idiosyncratic to laid back comic effect, and the film is charmingly amusing as well as emotionally affecting. Lee’s direction is visually appealing, with good use of the local scenery, and this does help to give the film a pleasantly poetic feel. The only real misstep comes with the pacing, which is rather variable and tends to go through some fairly long stretches where little of note happens. Although engaging and never dull, it does drag on a little as a result, and at nearly 2 hours might have benefitted from a bit of trimming.
This doesn’t really diminish the overall effectiveness however, and “Romance Joe” is a very accomplished and enjoyable debut from Lee Kwang Kuk which should be enjoyed by all fans of Korean indie cinema or of Hong Sang Soo and his oeuvre. Intelligent, funny and emotionally rich, while Lee might do well to try his hand at something a little different next time around, this nevertheless bodes very well for the emerging director’s future indeed.
Kwang-kuk Lee (director)
CAST: Young-Pil Kim
Dong Mi Shin