Mainstream cinema has the potential to demonstrate both the best and the worst that the medium has to offer. Concerning the latter, any number of criticisms can be leveled at the swill and drivel that the world’s film industries will subject us to and, while they are often besides the point, these criticisms are just as frequently justified. When money is involved, projects must inevitably revolve around profit, so at one end of the spectrum you will always find shallow and consumerist works versus the riskier ventures, often from established talents, that you will sometimes witness at the other.
Between these two extremes, there lies an uneasy middle-ground, which is expansive and marked by slippery definitions. Within this domain, there are filmmakers that strive to make something worthwhile from within the strict confines of commercial filmmaking and they sometimes achieve it, indeed, every once in a while, they might even make something transcendent. Then, there exists the studio hands who, despite working from a seemingly routine template with the assistance of unexceptional pedigree, every so often happen upon something that works.
Couples is such a film, one that, on paper, seems rather run of the mill. I had low expectations going in and how surprised was I to find myself immediately hooked in to its simple and contrived narrative. As foreign viewers, we are prone to showering praise on Korea’s renowned auteurs, which is richly deserved. Though perhaps just as impressive is the Korean film industry’s ability to fashion great genre films out of very simple ideas.
I can hardly ever sit through an American romcom these days. In fact, this has consistently been the case for contemporary efforts throughout my life. It’s a shame really as I grew up glued to my TV set wearing out the tape of my recorded videocassettes of Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and His Girl Friday (1940). It’s sad to see that Katherine Hepburn has been replaced by Katherine Heigl. However, Korean romcoms have delighted me time and again, though I won’t compare them to the films of classic Hollywood because they wouldn’t stand a chance. What they have been able to do though is to play Hollywood’s current game and beat them at it. In fact, they’ve rewritten the rulebook. When My Sassy Girl (2001) came around it was an eye-opener, another seemingly unambitious romcom that somehow revived the genre, even though most people didn’t know about it outside of Asia. There have been other extraordinary examples too, notably Jang Jin’s exceptional Someone Special (2004), and the industry has been pretty dependable in providing us with great but more often serviceable romantic comedies.
Just like the many that have come before it, Couples does not seek to redefine our experience of the romantic comedy. Instead it chooses what amounts to a series of simple but effective vignettes and, to keep things interesting, combines them in a interesting fashion. Multiple storylines are nothing new in Korean cinema which has had countless stories with protagonists separated by a spatiotemporal gap, such as The Contact, (1997), Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000), Il Mare (2000), and Ditto (2000). More recently, there have been a number of films featuring multiple narratives taking place at the same time. The UK film Love Actually (2003) is generally credited with the worldwide boom in this trend. This has led to some horrific, crass, shallow, and cynical Hollywood efforts such as Valentine’s Day (2010) and New Year’s Eve (2011), but in Korea, the formula has been quite successful, resulting in the wonderful Sad Movie (2005), the brilliant Family Ties (2006), and now, the much better than expected, Couples.
Yoo-suk’s (Kim Joo-hyeok) girlfriend Na-ri (Lee Si-young) left him the night he meant to propose, and months later, he meets traffic officer Ae-yeon (Lee Yoon-ji) during a bank hold-up. Yoo-suk’s friend Bok-nam (Oh Jeong-se), a private investigator, has been trying to track down Na-ri for him. He finds that she has shacked up with Bung-chan (Kong Hyeong-jin), a reformed gangster, but when she steals from him, she sets in motion a series of events that involves everyone in unexpected ways.
I can’t say that I’m a fan of director Jeong Yong-ki’s previous work, which includes two entries from the Marrying the Mafia franchise and Once Upon a Time (2008). Though the latter was promising, his work is mostly uneven and maybe a little too self-assured. Couples exhibits some of these negative traits as well, but given the multi-narrative structure and the scale of the film, these does not constitute major detractions. The film benefits from a strong ensemble cast, especially Kim Joo-hyeok and Lee Yoon-ji who are effortless in their shy and sweet blossoming romance. I was less impressed with Lee Si-young, but this is probably because of the representation of her character, a shockingly shallow gold digger. In fact, she was just like the female lead in Once Upon a Time, the only woman in that film and also the only lead character not to be redeemed by its end. I find it a little bothersome that Jeong is so comfortable in portraying and promulgating these negative female stereotypes. This is not to mention that Na-ri’s boyfriend, the gang boss, comes off as a saint next to her.
Although by no means a great film, Couples, due to its good leads and clever script, is a convincing entry into the ranks of Korean romcoms. Films like this are the only reason that I take a chance on Korean cinema so much. With Hollywood, at this level, you pretty much always know what you’re getting, so why make an effort? Korea, nearly fifteen years into its emergence as an international cinema powerhouse, still has the ability to surprise.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.