The new film by Jeon Gye-soon (The Fox Family, Lost and Found) sets up as a traditional romantic comedy before exchanging its light-hearted sense of humor for a heavy-handed critique of male relationship fantasies.
While a critical examination of a classically self-centered male psyche is always welcome, in the case of Joo-wol (Ha Jung-woo, the frightening serial killer in The Chaser), his hidden insecurities and phobias burst forth with much less foreshadowing than the John Hurt "chest pain" scene from Alien. And that's a fatal error in a story that's told (nearly) entirely from his perspective.
We meet Joo-wol as a bartender with writer's block, a common-enough malady for a thirtysomething underachiever. But then we learn that he's already had one novel published and has a contract for another. By his circumstances, we can surmise that his first book was not a popular success, but his publisher is eager for his next work, which tells us that Joo-wol is a talented writer.
What was the subject of his first novel? We don't know. Why does he have writer's block? We don't know. What is his background? We don't know.
Joo-wol lives with his brother -- older? younger? I don't know -- in a small apartment, he works at a bar and sometimes hangs out with three buddies, who are in a band that plays at the bar; Joo-wol sometimes writes lyrics for their songs. Through a series of flashbacks, we do learn that Joo-wol is a serial failure at relationships, and despairs of ever finding his one true love.
And then he meets Hee-jin (Gong Hyo-jin).
Joo-wol has traveled to Berlin at the invitation of his publisher in order to serve as translator and, perhaps, unblock his writer's block. He meets Hee-jin, an importer for a Korean film distribution company, at a party; the heavens open up and shine down upon her, and Joo-wol falls instantly in love. Back in Korea, he woos her with words, and she quickly falls for him.
As so often happens in romantic comedy-dramas, once the melodrama takes hold, all the air is sucked out of the room. Though that doesn't happen until relatively late in the story, Joo-wol's continued insistence in learning more and more about Hee-jin, while revealing precious little about himself, at least to the audience, becomes more and more of a drain.
After all, the movie is told from his point of view. So, by withholding information about Joo-wol's motivations and personal history, other than some sort of vague romantic fantasy, it's as though blinders get jammed onto our eyes, like thoroughbred race horses in the Kentucky Derby. We can only see a slice of what's really going on.
In that sense, Love Fiction resembles Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz, in that it ultimately presents the disturbing idea that we can never really know ourselves. Unlike Polley's film, however, Love Fiction presents an abundance of bright and sunny silliness before putting on its Serious Boy Hat and ruining all the fun (and taking a nod, apparently, from Kevin Smith!).
Love Fiction screened at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. It is available on Region 3 DVD from KD Media.