“Fair Love” offers a twist on the usual Korean romances by charting the progress of a May-December relationship between an older man and a young woman half his age. Although this is an interesting enough premise on its own, the film is an even more intriguing prospect thanks to the presence of Ahn Sung Ki, the legendary actor and award winning industry veteran whose career has seen him appear in countless classics including “Nowhere to Hide”, “Duellist” and “Radio Star”. The talented young actress and television star Lee Ha Na (recently in “Le Grand Chef”) steps up to play his love interest, with indie writer, director and producer Shin Yeon Shick (“A Great Actor”) at the helm.
Ahn Sung Ki stars as Hyung Man, a never married man in his fifties, who runs a small camera repair studio while he goes quietly about his dull though comfortable life. Love comes knocking for the first time ever when an old friend dies, leaving behind a request that he look after his 26 year old daughter, college student Nam Eun (Lee Ha Na). A somewhat odd, though heartfelt and driven girl, Nam Eun makes it clear from early on that she feels attracted to Hyung Man, though he is somewhat more hesitant, being reluctant to break his routine and open up his heart.
What makes “Fair Love” so watchable and winning is its unexpectedly light tone. Although director Shin doesn’t aim for overt comedy, the film is amusing and never takes itself too seriously, and this makes it far more agreeable and indeed effective than if it had been full of emotional shoe gazing and angst. At the same time the film is realistic, patiently building as Hyung Man deals with and processes his feelings for Nam Eun, slowly coming out of his shell as he thinks over his life and choices. Nam Eun is an equally, if not even more interesting character, and is believable as an offbeat young woman, without the script portraying her as being kooky or wacky in the usual cinematic sense – rather, she is driven, knows what she wants and what she doesn’t like about men and friends her own age. As a result, their relationship is not only convincing, but engaging, thanks in no small part to the excellent performances turned in by both leads. The two have a subtle, though definite chemistry in their many scenes together, and the film never feels forced, with its growing intimacy being well won and entirely naturalistic.
Also worthy of praise is the fact that Shin never allows the film to head into the usual melodrama, even during the latter stages. Whilst the relationship inevitably has its ups and downs, as the two encounter disapproval and hypocrisy from family and friends, their problems are for the most part those of men and woman in general. Again, the film shows a wry sense of humour as it ponders such great and impenetrable mysteries, and benefits hugely from not focusing solely on the age gap issue. Indeed, the film is a character drama as much as a romance, with its protagonists learning about life and themselves through their relationship, with a view to catharsis rather than easy answers or comfort blanket sentimentality. Certainly, it is not the kind of film which signposts either a happy or sad ending from early on, and Shin holds his nerve right through to the rewarding conclusion, keeping things grounded and moving in a humanistic fashion.
The film does make for emotional viewing, far more so than other more conventional genre outings. By avoiding most of the expected excesses and by not tugging at the heartstrings too cheaply, Shin weaves a tale with universal appeal, and one which is all the better for being as quiet and unassuming as its characters. The only real problem with the film comes with its soundtrack, which at times is so clichéd and sappy that it threatens to drown out some of the more poignant scenes. Making matters worse, the English language lyrics of the cringe worthy ballads are distracting, seeming to have been chosen for their supposed meaning and relation to the onscreen drama.
Still, this is a relatively minor criticism, and “Fair Love” is a mature piece of film making that manages to cast off the worst shackles of the genre to produce a romantic drama that is moving, engaging and thoughtful. With great acting and writing, and with Shin’s indie sensibilities keeping things steady, the film offers an enjoyable alternative to the usual saccharine heavy love stories.
Yeon-Shick Shin (director) / Yeon-Shick Shin (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn … Hyeong-man
Ha-na Lee … Nam-eun
Yeon-jeong Heo … Jae-eu
Chang-gyu Kil … Gi-hyeok
In-soo Kim … Reverend Kang