Grand romance, as depicted on screen, written on the page or sung into a microphone, is the stuff of dreams. We crave it and feel it vicariously through surrogate works. It happens in life too but scarcely as magnificently as we imagine it in our minds. Romcoms spoil us in a way, they invite us to expect something that doesn't exist, at least in a form as ideal as that which is represented in these films.
The Korean film industry is famous for romantic fare and for good reason. Mostly fitting within two categories, romantic comedies in the country are frequently fresh, sweet and thoroughly charming (My Sassy Girl and My Scary Girl to name a few) while the more melodramatic romances elicit sobs from even the most cynical viewers (A Moment to Remember, More Than Blue). Falling in between these two genres is the new romantic offering Very Ordinary Couple, the debut work of Roh Deok.
At the outset, it certainly feels like Very Ordinary Couple will fall in line with past romantic comedies. It employs an off-the-cuff style, frames its story with interviews of the couple as talking heads sniping at each other following their break-up, is frequently funny and features plenty of comic relief supporting characters, such as 'the best friend'. All those things aside, it doesn't take long to realize that something is not quite right. The tone is a bit dark and the jokes don't come as fast as we'd expect. What's more we've been robbed of the meet-cute and nothing outrageous happens on screen. It all feels a little too... real. And that's precisely the point.
A man and a woman work in the same bank branch. They have been in a long-term relationship, unbeknownst to their colleagues. Now that their affection has dried up, they break up. A clean break it isn't as petty post-relationship squabbling over possessions and unpaid debts erupts into the public sphere, alerting their co-workers of their amorous connection after the fact. New relationships as well as other covert office romances complicate things further but their feelings for one another refuse to subside completely.
If I were to choose one precedent for this in Korean cinema, it would have to be the dark but rather brilliant Rules of Dating (2005), the debut of director Han Jae-rim, starring Park Hae-il and Kang Hye-jeong. It also seemed like a romantic comedy at first but turned out to be a more somber film, exploring patriarchy and alcoholism in the work place among many other things. It had the form of a romcom but a very different flavor, and it was all the better for it.
Much the same can be said of Roh's debut. It was successful in Korea yet put off many viewers who were expecting something a lot frothier. Of course, life is not full of happy endings and quirky get-togethers. The very ordinary couple of the title (and they certainly are) are unsure of what they want in their relationships but also in their lives, as they toil away through the same daily routine. At their most passionate, the couple have intense fights, slinging cruel barbs at each other while sabotaging their image in front of their co-workers. Yet in their romantic moments they are strangely sedate, content to be by each other's side as they wile away the short moments between work shifts.
Much of the film's success comes down to its stars, who manage to maintain their appeal despite largely forgoing the theatrics that have been the hallmarks of their careers to date. Following a standout turn in last year's brooding thriller Helpless, Kim Min-hee shows us once again that she is willing to take risks on screen, a far cry from the parodied version of herself she played in E J-yong's mockumentary Actresses (2009). Mixing the sweet with the sour, Lee Min-ki (Spellbound, 2011) shows us a man whose cuteness is undermined by his arrogance and frequent aggressive outbursts.
Working with a relatively low budget, director Roh keeps the camera off the tripod for most of the film and resists the candy-colored palette of typical Korean romcom fare. As a result, the dreary Seoul inhabited by these characters is a recognizable one. Though sometimes depressing, the film is always sincere. Roh's keen sense of balance shows us the real version of the romcom but is never so dark as to be off-putting.
Though not without its contrivances Very Ordinary Couple is one of the most refreshing romantic films to emerge in a long time. In a country that prizes image over everything it's wonderful to see a work that etches away at the thick veneer of consumerism making an impact on marquees. I don't want to see too many films like this, lest they turn me off love completely, but I'm very happy that this one has come our way.