Review: CASA AMOR: EXCLUSIVE FOR LADIES, But Really Just A Man's World
Every so often, Korean cinema presents us with a new film, filled with the promise of titillating erotica. Invariably, these turn out to be rather chaste affairs and Casa Amor: Exclusive for Ladies (the original title of which is Working Girl, in English but spelt in Korean), proves to be no exception. However, stylish though it may be, this new work proves more egregious than most, as it hints at the freedom of female sexuality yet ultimately sinks into woefully patriarchal archetypes.
Bo-hee is a successful career woman working as a marketing executive in a toy company. Consumed with her work, she keeps her doesn't have much time for her husband, particularly when it comes to his primal needs. Meanwhile, her free-spirited neighbour Nan-hee sells sex toys for women, and when Bo-hee loses her job after a misunderstanding at work, they team up to launch an adult-themed business.
Colorful and snappy, Casa Amor gets off to a good start. Opting for broad caricature, director Jung Bum-sik draws us in with succinct visual cues and some creative production design. But once we've been properly introduced to the characters and setting, the over-the-top style of the design and performances, which lacks a strong foundation, begins to wear thin. What's more, once the two protagonists finally team up at the end of the first act, the pacing begins to drop significantly.
Speaking of the first act, save for a few shots dedicated to Clara's (Nan-hee) cleavage, the bulk of it focuses on Bo-hee, played by Jo Yeo-jeong. Known primarily for her demure characters (such as in 2010's The Servant), Jo showed off a little more range last year in Obsessed, an otherwise dull melodrama that was almost saved by her vivid portrayal of an ambitious housewife. She further demonstrates a heretofore unknown knack for physical comedy in Casa Amor, even if the direction frequently calls on her to overact.
Far less expressive is the icy Clara, a model who became an overnight star when she threw the opening pitch at a baseball game in a clingy pair of leggings. Regardless of how natural they may be, she certainly has the looks but she fails to bring any charm to her character. At the same time, she's not given much to work with as Nan-hee is presented as a risqué sexpot but turns out to be a prude with a sappy backstory.
Clara's presence also had another, unexpected effect on the film. In Korea, famous stars don't guarantee strong box office returns, but a good scandal always keeps the crowds away. A few months ago, the melodrama My Brilliant Life seemed like a surefire hit, but the tax evasion woes of actress Song Hye-kyo dealt it a severe blow. Similarly, Lee Byung-hun has been embroiled in a blackmail and sex scandal which has indefinitely delayed the releases of his upcoming films Memories of the Sword, which wrapped a year ago, and Inside Men.
Accused of pathological lying in her media appearances and of faking sexual harassment charges to get out of a contract with her management agency, Clara has also seen her image badly tarnished. Casa Amor performed disastrously at the box office, lasting barely two weeks in theaters despite a very visible marketing campaign, which may have had something to do with Clara's current predicament.
With a prominence of sex toys and masturbation, Casa Amor features an erotic setting, but in practice it's really just another Korean drama/romcom adorned with a few sexy props and filled with conservative values. Once the jokes begin to wind down the narrative turns into one where a woman must fulfill her role as a good mother and wife and gently return to the fold, abandoning any self-realization she's acquired in the previous 90 minutes. It feels like a patronizing and patriarchal concession to women - you can have your fun for a little while, but know your place.
Following the gorgeous K-horror Epitaph (2007) and his segments in both Horror Stories (2012, 2013) omnibuses, his easily being the best, it's no surprise that Jung's Casa Amor is a nice film to look at. As already mentioned, the production design is top notch and Jung once again demonstrates his ability to tell a story, not to mention set up a few jokes, with his strong command of film language. Alas, that's about all that the film has to offer. Were it a standard romcom it might have made for a respectable middle-of-the-road effort, but the cheap and disingenuous erotic angle leaves a sour aftertaste, particularly following a maudlin finale.