Korean director Han Ji Seung, previously known for “Too Beautiful To Lie” and “Fun Movie” tries to shake up the romantic comedy genre with his latest offering “Venus and Mars”. Here, he takes the battle between the sexes to its logical conclusion, casting aside all notions of civility and good behaviour in favour of aggression and unbridled vengeance, with the two protagonists spending most of the running time attempting not to reconcile and make up for their shortcomings, but instead to kill each other.
The film starts in amusingly twisted fashion, as Sang Min (Sol Kyung Gu, a versatile actor recently in “Voice of a Murderer” and “Silmido” and Jin Ah (the gorgeous Kim Tae Hee, also in “The Restless” and “Stairway to Heaven”) meet and fall in love in a sequence which effectively spoofs the usual genre hysterics. The action abruptly skips forward to the two deciding to separate, having realised that they actually can’t stand each other for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the split proves to be far from amicable, and they both start finding ways to make the other’s life miserable. Things come to a head when Jin Ah refuses to return to Sang Min the pendulum for his beloved clock, and their squabbles quickly degenerate into life threatening violence.
Without wishing to sound too cynical, probably the most important question when considering “Venus and Mars”, or indeed any Korean romantic comedy, no matter how anarchic or wacky, is as to when the film will drop the humour and launch headlong into teary melodrama. The answer here is an impressive one hour and twenty minutes, before which the film is actually very funny in suitably crazed fashion. Most of the gags revolve around slapstick and petty one-upmanship, though director Han certainly pushes things much further into the realm of the bizarre and dangerous than in other films, working in several crazed action and duel scenes in which the two protagonists actually do seem like they want to kill each other.
These include a surprisingly thrilling and well handled car chase along a rain soaked highway at night, and a long farmyard fight which earns points for being a far more effective and entertaining means of achieving catharsis than the usual teary shouting matches. Whilst the viewer never really believes that either of the two are likely to die or that the film is going to suddenly switch from comedy to homicide, this does make for plenty of explosive thrills, and gives the laughter a hard, if not too mean spirited edge.
The film also benefits from the fact that both Sol Kyung Gu and Kim Tae Hee turn in very fun and game performances, clearly relishing roles that give them the chance, for most of the running time at least, to send up the usual romantic comedy stereotypes. Unfortunately, the flipside to this is that as a result of playing their characters as figures of fun, by the time the film takes its stab at asking the viewer to cry rather than laugh, they have not been fleshed out enough to really engage emotionally, and the following scenes of melodrama fall somewhat flat.
Whilst the old adage that there is a thin line between love and hate may ring true in this case, the sudden shift in tone is jarring, not least since neither protagonist is a particularly pleasant person, having spent the film up until this point trying to ruin each other’s lives through increasingly cruel and underhand (though amusing) schemes. This in itself is perhaps not too much of a criticism, as it pretty much par for the course, and as it is a very difficult task for any film to leap from out and out comedy to emotional substance. Indeed fans of the form may well be quite willing to accept this shortcoming, and in this respect the film is certainly no worse an offender than others of the genre, with Han even managing to work in a final wacky, if not exactly unexpected twist at the end of the story.
Another factor which helps place the film ahead of the pack is Han’s slick and stylish direction, which keeps things moving along at a bright and breezy pace. Although he packs in pretty much every cliché of the romantic comedy genre, right down to the comedy relief supporting cast of odd friends (including Sang Min’s frankly insane friend who is in love with a cow and who gets heartbroken and jealous when it gets pregnant) and unlikely misunderstandings, he manages to throw things together in a light and dynamic manner, injecting a sense of energy that keeps the viewer entertained throughout.
Certainly, “Venus and Mars” is one of the better Korean romantic comedies of the last couple of years, even if it is hard to shake the feeling that it could have been something a little more special and different had Han kept his nerve and resisted the temptation to pile on the melodrama. Still, this aside, the film serves up plenty of laughs and surprises, and with the two stars giving their all against each other, it delivers the goods in pleasantly manic style.
Ji-Seung Han (director) / Ji-Seung Han (screenplay)
CAST: Soo-kyeong Jeon … Hyang-mi
Hye-ryeon Kang … Jin-sook
Tae-hee Kim … Ji-na
Ha-ryong Lim … The lawyer
Tae-hwa Seo … Tae-hwa
Kyung-gu Sol … Sang-min