With five films under his directorial belt Lee Yoon-ki has seemingly become the patron saint of modern female ennui. Just as the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni utilized Monica Vitti’s detached cool exterior to explore the problems of the nouveau riche in such classic art-house favorites as L’Avventura (1960) and L’eclisse (1962) director Lee has, in the quintet of films he has directed so far, explored similar themes, though in a far less cold and calculated manner. With an unquestionable knack for casting strong female actresses who invest every subtle gesture and pregnant pause with a whole host of conflicting emotions, Lee avoids the trap of histrionic melodrama that so many Korean films have fallen into. Of course, with that statement said not all of his films could be called unequivocal masterpieces.
Debuting in 2004 with This Charming Girl (Yeoja, Jeong-hye, 2004) and gaining critical acclaim in film festivals as varied as Pusan, Berlin, and Sundance, Lee had etched for himself, within the international film community, a reputation for crafting low-key female character studies. Of course, when one uses the terms “low-key”, “lo-fi”, or even “character study,” even the most ardent cinephile can’t help but sneer imagining a film with a meandering storyline, excessive verbal pontificating from characters, and an unrefined visual style. This backlash is due in part to the Mumblecore movement, that emerged in the mid-2000s, a movement that reveled in this particular brand of navel gazing, which of course irked many critics and cinephiles. Lee’s films, though appearing to exhibit all of the tropes from this movement, are far more watchable and also speak to more universal truths about the human condition. Much like all true auteurs, each film in his oeuvre builds upon his previous work. Characters, themes, setting, and even moods are repeated throughout his films, establishing a unique but familiar universe that audiences can visit.
For his sophomore effort, Lee broadens his scope further by going from exploring the mundane daily routine of a female postal clerk in This Charming Girl to the lives of three emotionally damaged Korean expatriates in Los Angeles’ Koreatown in Love Talk, a film which many have labeled as a “flawed but noble effort”. After my initial viewing of the film, I would have to agree with that opinion of the film. Although having all the requisite ingredients necessary in a Lee Yoon-ki film, it falls short do in part to the foreign setting and also, ironically, because of Lee’s unique style of filmmaking.
The America depicted in Lee’s film is a familiar, but empty space. Though his main concern in the film is exploring the lives of three Korean expatriates living in a multi-ethnic Los Angeles environment, his representation of Los Angeles is so generic that the film could have been set in any U.S. city. Unlike his later film, My Dear Enemy (2008), which fully utilized the urban Seoul setting to the point that it became a third character within the narrative, the Los Angeles in Love Talk is unfortunately nondescript. Love Talk may be set in a foreign land but it is far from being a “stranger in a strange land” type of narrative. In fact, it edges closer to being an interior drama wherein the dialogue is sparse and the few lines spoken by the actors offer only snippets to our understanding of the characters we are watching on screen.
The two female protagonists in the movie, Sunny (Bae Jong-ok) and Young-shin (Park Jin-hee), have traveled to L.A. looking not for the American dream, but to escape from a never fully understood emotional trauma. With Sunny working as a masseuse/prostitute and Young-shin holding court as the host of a radio call-in show called Love Talk, it’s ironic that both Sunny and Young-shin have occupations that requires each woman to give their customers/listeners some form of cathartic release, be it physical or emotional since both women are, like many of the female protagonists found in Lee Yoon-ki’s films, emotionally repressed and in online casino a seemingly constant state of catatonia. Though unlike the character played by Kim Ji-Soo in This Charming Girl, both women are neither alone nor are they particularly isolated from people or their environment. Nonetheless whenever a chance for emotional intimacy with someone appears, both women quickly draw away and push their respective partners back. Case in point being our third protagonist in the film, Ji-Seok (Park Hee-soon), who we meet at the very start of the film. At first, it seems like the two have some history together and that maybe they were or will become lovers, but Ji-Seok is actually Young-shin’s former lover and he has traveled all the way to Los Angeles to win her back.
All of this sounds like a bad cliché melodrama, but Lee does a good job keeping the histrionics to a bare minimum to the point that it becomes nil impossible to actually keep your interest in the story. Lee’s trademark slow ponderous style makes juggling the three storylines a real chore. If the focus was just either on Sunny, Young-shin, or Ji-Seok the film might have been easier to follow since the narrative through line would be far less cluttered, but as it is, the constant jumping from one emotionally unavailable character to another was quite taxing. This is not to mention the fact that the English dialogue spoken by the Korean as well as American actors is poorly delivered and also quite laughably bad at times. When the veneer of calm placidity finally does begin to crack, especially during one of the only scenes of violence in Lee’s oeuvre, it is quite jarring. It”s as if we were watching a movie in a parallel universe with the same characters and story, but directed by a far more conventional filmmaker.
Ultimately, Love Talk can be defined mainly by what it is not. It is not a film about the expatriate experience. It is not a romance, drama, or road movie/travelogue. It can only be tangentially considered a Korean film due to its cast and crew being mainly Korean in ethnicity. It is not a perfect film and though Lee would go on to refine his style and further (and better) explore the many facets of loneliness and emotional isolation, Love Talk is a small misstep from an otherwise talented and brilliant director.