From Korea with love

South Korean love stories are currently playing in theaters. Take your pick between the art-house romantic drama Past Lives and the commercial romantic-comedy Honey Sweet.

TEO Yoo and Greta lee in ‘Past Lives.’ | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF A24

Past Lives’

When Hae-sung (Teo Yoo, Decision to Leave) booked an Uber to the airport with his great love Nora (Greta Lee, The Morning Show) by his side, he pinned the pick-up location a little farther away from Nora’s New York apartment because, maybe, he does not want Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro, First Cow) to see them at their most vulnerable state.

Celine Song’s directorial debut Past Lives explores one of the greatest romantic conflicts: Forbidden love.

Hae-sung is in love with Nora, but Nora is married to another man. But does Nora feel exactly the same way about Hae-sung? Are they truly meant for each other? For Nora, is Hae-sung “the one that got away”?

Song uses ambition, personal values, a buffering Skype, geography and cultural identity to keep her characters apart and to justify why the two are not together.

Her style is slow burn and restrained, but sometimes too self-consciously restrained that even moments that require emotions are neglected. This film is too terrified to express the slightest hint of melodrama that it forgets that the characters are still human.

When Song puts Nora and Hae Sung together for lengthy sessions of eye contact or speechlessness, it is tensionless. She also neglects body language.

Meanwhile, Arthur may be nicely created here as the unconventionally kind and understanding husband (he’s an intellectual Jewish novelist), but his passivity is painfully predictable and bland down to the last scene. He confides his insecurities to Nora, sure, but in an almost comically contrived way, coming from a place of a moral high ground delivered in a very self-aware cheerfulness.

The writing lacks the kind of depth and wit that the film tries too hard to express. At the core of the story is the Korean inyeon, or the concept of two people tied together through each reincarnated life, hence the title. But the narrative just hinges on this belief without exploring the richer nuances of true love and attraction. It’s a one-dimensional tale of a guy in love and a girl who may or may not be in love with him.

The ending, however, is powerful and heart-wrenching, and answers all the emotional ambiguities of the story, ultimately redeeming the entire movie. What a terrific twist.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


‘Honey Sweet’

Lee Han’s romantic-comedy is the go-to foreign flick if you need something light and entertaining so you can unwind in the theaters. It’s a working-class love story between two forty-somethings: the pretty single mother Il-Young (Kim Hee-seon) and the not-so-handsome snacks researcher/taster Chi-Ho (Yu Hae-jin).

Honey Sweet uses slapstick and gags to tickle your bones. But the selling point here is the strong chemistry between the two leads. You root for them, these two lonely people who meet each other a little late in life.

It is a formulaic love story: meet-cute, dating, break-up, and a happy ending. Still, what makes Honey Sweet a charming, endearing time-killer is how it skillfully captures the emotional bond between two people falling in love.

The conflict is convincing, and some of the best scenes are when the two are separated for a while, essaying the seemingly boundless pain of a break-up. Meanwhile, the villain, Chi-ho’s cruel older brother, Seok Ho (Cha In-pyo), provides the movie’s much needed tension and distress.

While the movie is incredibly shallow, it still provides romantic subtleties and character idiosyncrasies, making it an engaging watch all throughout. He is an introvert; she is an extrovert. He is malnourished; she is a good cook. The film manages to utilize their contrasting personalities and interests for fun and entertainment.

Honey Sweet explores how some people do not realize how lonely they are until they meet the right one. Before meeting each other, Chi-Ho and Il-Young have seemingly resigned to their mundane routine. But once romance sparks between them, they take the viewers along with them as they embark on an emotional adventure — and it’s kinda sweet.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars