Udine 2024 Review: THEIR LAST LOVE AFFAIR, Lee Myung-se's Daring and Dazzling Tale of Illicit Romance

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
Udine 2024 Review: THEIR LAST LOVE AFFAIR, Lee Myung-se's Daring and Dazzling Tale of Illicit Romance

This year's Far East Film Festival is screening a large number of South Korean classics, including a full program dedicated to the country's fascinating 1950s output, such as Park Nam-ok's progressive drama The Widow, the first Korean film ever directed by a woman.

Yet the most interesting screening taking place this year may be the world premiere of a brand new 4K restoration of Their Last Love Affair. This 1996 film has seldom been seen outside of Korea, despite being made by master stylist Lee Myung-se, whose seminal 1999 work Nowhere to Hide is also screening at the festival.

Featuring a magnetic turn by the late Kang Soo-yeon and a primal one from Kim Kap-soo, currently on screens in the smash hit K-drama Queen of Tears, Lee's film, simply put, is an affair drama. A married man, in this case a professor and poet, falls for an unattached woman, a literary critic who first comes to his attention after inadvertently stroking his ego from afar, by writing a positive review of his book of poetry.

An intense mutual attraction is born, and the pair shack up in a seaside hovel away from prying eyes. Their isolation also has the added benefit of shielding others from their tempestuous relationship but they are the ones most at risk, as their torrid and impossible affair threatens to consume them whole.

A story along these lines may be gleaned from the film's title alone -- though the Korean one, which roughly translates as 'An Awful Love', is even more direct -- but viewers may briefly conjure up different expectations based on the film's opening sequence, a bravura cinematic display filled with all the bells and whistles we would more readily ascribe to auteurist neo-noir.

Much in the way that Wong Kar Way's Days of Being Wild ends with a thrilling mood sequence that looks forward to his later work but connects in no way with the story that preceded it, this scene occupies a similar space in Their Last Love Affair (both also feature lots of strobe editing), only it does so at the beginning of the picture.

Rather than an atmospheric thriller, the film we are about to see is indeed an affair drama, a genre that was en vogue throughout the 90s in Korea. Though they have long fallen out of favour in the industry's contemporary romantic drama climate, affair dramas used to be all the rage. After Korea entered its democratic era in the late 1980s, censorship laws were relaxed. Things that were forbidden suddenly weren't and affair dramas, whether as allegory or titillation, were among the works that captured the mood of the times.

Jang Sun-woo made no less than three of them, A Short Love Affair, The Road to the Racetrack (also featuring Kang) and Lies, while An Affair and Happy End are two other notable examples. If this cycle of films can be said to have a clear endpoint, it may be Daniel H. Byun's eye-popping The Scarlet Letter, an erotic thriller which provoked much controversy, for acts it depicted on screen as well as tragic events that followed it off the screen.

Lee's work, particularly his latter films which are more well known in the West, including works such as Duelist and M, is clearly inspired by Hong Kong cinema, but there is a stunning moment in this film that feels like it calls forward to a signature scene in modern HK cinema.

After one of their blow-ups, the couple rush out into the rainy night and Lee films the scene from above, as one partner chases and eventually catches up with the other. Despite all the people on the street, all we can see are their variegated umbrellas. There's a similar moment in Johnnie To's Sparrow, though it might be a stretch to imagine that the Hong Kong master had a chance to see Lee's film, but one person who probably did was Park Chan-wook, who also filmed a similar sequence early in his revenge classic Oldboy.

Their Last Love Affair is fairly effective as both a heady affair drama and frothy romantic comedy, but it is at its most thrilling when Lee breaks past the confines of those genres, employing a vivid cinematic language that greedily embraces a panoply of varied styles. The soundtrack is brash, the camera swoops around and the bold editing ties it all together into a film that sallies forth with gusto.

While the story is there, what matters here most is the experience. From his very first film, the ebullient love letter to cinema that is Gagman, Lee has always been a vivid and cinematically literate filmmaker, but from this point on his work became increasingly experiential. Narrative was no longer the driving force but merely an element in his seductive, atmospheric and ingenious cinematic creations.

Their Last Love Affair

  • Lee Myung-se
  • Lee Myung-se
  • Kang Soo-youn
  • Kim Kap-su
  • Hak-Cheol Kim
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4k restorationaffair dramaclassic Korean cinemafar east film festivalFEFFLee Myung-seudine강수연김갑수이명세지독한 사랑Kang Soo-younKim Kap-suHak-Cheol KimDramaRomance

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