If Korean director Lee Sang-woo's I Am Trash was difficult to watch -- and I found it an exceptionally brutal experience to endure when I saw his movie at Fantastic Fest last year -- Dirty Romance initially threatens to exceed the 'uncomfortable factor,' getting very up close and personal with a young woman who is developmentally disabled as well as with an older woman suffering from dementia, to the point that she needs help caring for very personal hygienic matters.
Clearly, director Lee is not interested in making things comfortable for more sensitive viewers.
There is, however, a raw truth in Dirty Romance that rings true in the scenes cited above. Speaking from personal experience, caring for an adult family member who is not able to care for themselves is grueling and exhausting. The one providing the personal care must struggle with their own overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and guilt, for daring to occasionally, temporarily, and briefly allowing their own feelings to come to the fore.
Chul-joong is the central character in the film, and he is slowy buckling under the daily pressures of caring for his sister Mi-joong, who is disabled. Both his patience and self-control are running short, and it takes great effort for him not to take out his feelings of frustration on his sister. Near the point of no return, Chul-joong happens to see his old school mate Chang-ji with a teenage girl. Chang-ji is pretending to be 19 years old -- a decade younger than he is -- so he can hit on young women. Chul-joong's righteous anger is compounded because his former schoolmate also owes him a considerable sum of money, is way overdue in paying him back, and Chul-joong is under incredible financial stress.
So, Chul-joong pushes Chang-ji into having sex with his sister.
Now, nothing in that sentence truly makes sense to me, except as a reflection of Chul-joong's desperate state of mind. Does he think that he's doing a favor for his sister, who has nursed a crush on Chang-ji for many years? Or is it a measure of revenge against Chang-ji, an expression of anger? Whatever conclusion might be drawn, it results in a most uncomfortable sex scene that dances somewhere on the wrong side of perverse.
To further complicate matters, Chang-ji is the one who is caring for his mother with dementia. His relationship with her is different than Chul-joong's is with his sister, in part because of the differing family relationships and in part because of the differing personalities of Chul-joong and Chang-ji.
What they both have in common, however, is the tender emotion they retain, albeit in different proportions, for their family members, which comes more to the fore as the narrative progresses and becomes more layered, escaping from the claustrophobic confines of their respective domestic settings. Each is struggling to 'do the right thing,' even as neither is acting as a fully-fledged adult might; they both have some growing up to do, maturing that is difficult to achieve when so much of their time and attention is focused on caring for someone else, with no end in sight. The way that things work out is reflective of their individual sensibilities.
As a movie, Dirty Romance displays greater visual variety than I Am Trash, dressing up the family dynamics, and makes good use of (only occasional) music. But that doesn't relieve the tensions that exist and continue to build as the characters deal with the consequences of their actions. Especially is that the case with Chul-joong, whose depth of emotions combine with a growing maturity that begins to emerge.
Should Chul-joong, or Chang-gi, be shouldering such responsibilities alone? All logic dictates that their situations would be far better if they had some help. But that's not always possible, and in capturing the possible, potentially devastating consequences that can result, Dirty Romance speaks the truth, no matter how much one might wish otherwise.
(Full Disclosure: ScreenAnarchy contributing writer Pierce Conran is a credited producer on Dirty Romance.)