If money problems can force people apart, they can also bring them together again. At least that is the premise of Lee Yoon-ki‘s My Dear Enemy, a low-key romance that uses the collection of an overdue personal loan to initiate a will they/won’t they situation between two former lovers. One year ago, charming ladies’ man Byung-woon (Ha Jung-Woo) borrowed $3,500 from then-girlfriend Hee-Su (Jeon Do-Yeon), who eventually decides to find her ex-boyfriend and demands that the debt be repaid by the end of the day. The now-homeless Byung-woon is penniless, so he is forced to take out a series of small loans from other people in order to accumulate enough cash to pay Hee-Su back. This necessitates a long day as Hee-Su drives Byung-woon around Seoul to various residences and workplaces to make sure that he does not slip away with a false promise of repayment. Shin definitely needs the money, but she possibly has other reasons for suddenly tracking Byung-woon down. Their circumstances represent a South Korean society where economic conditions are making life increasingly precarious for young professions in the big city, but Lee is more interested in human connection than the credit crunch and instead shows how Hee-Su is reminded of why she was once so attracted to Byung-woon. The city of Seoul plays a crucial role in mapping the development of this relationship over the course of one day, with Ha and Jeon portraying recognisable characters whose situations are all too relatable in a post-recession world.
In terms of presenting a cinematic tour of an East Asian metropolis, My Dear Enemy could be considered to be the South Korean equivalent to Satoshi Miki’s equally delightful comedy Adrift in Tokyo (2007), in which a cash-strapped student debtor is taken on a voyage of self-discovery around the Japanese capital by an unusually sympathetic loan shark. Both films use their respective cities as a backdrop for timely introspection as characters find themselves at a crossroads while the sights of Tokyo and Seoul gradually achieve resonance. Byung-woon and Hee-Su travel around Seoul as he tries to scrape together the money from various friends, of which he has many, including women to whom he may offer more than just small talk. Their journey takes in a range of uptown and downtown locations: the rooftop of a major corporation, an apartment in a modern complex, an eatery with expensive décor, a neighbourhood school, a suburban biker party and a less affluent area where Byung-woon is reduced to borrowing cash from a single mother. To someone who has not visited Seoul, My Dear Enemy may appear to utilise a wide range of spaces around the city, but most of the scenes were reportedly shot in the Yongsan-gu district. Nonetheless, a varied use of locations ensures that the film appears to cover much of the modern cityscape from the commercial centre to residential areas. My Dear Enemy is beautifully shot by cinematographer Choi Sang-ho, whose crisp aesthetic captures Seoul from early morning to dusk.
If most romances hinge on chance encounters or grand gestures, My Dear Enemy revolves around shared history; Hee-Su is still charmed by Byung-woon’s playful nature, yet behaves coldly towards him for much of the day as his ability to win over anyone in his social orbit may have been the cause of their break-up. The screenplay by Lee and Park Eun-yeong, working from a story by the Japanese writer Asuko Taira, sensibly favours exchanges over exposition, allowing the audience to make assumptions based on behaviour rather than being bombarded with a series of belated recriminations. Hee-Su‘s manner varies from business-like to passive-aggressive, suggesting that subsequent relationships could have also failed, making Byung-woo seem like the ‘one that got away’ by comparison, or that pursuit of professional success (she dresses well and drives a new car) has left her perpetually single. Byung-woon is easy-going and talkative, but there is a melancholy quality to the manner in which he recalls how happy Hee-Su appeared to be when she ended their relationship that hints at thoughts of what could have been. Even the matter of monetary debt is seen from more than one angle, in that it is certainly financial burden, but can also be a means of maintaining ties to another person in an increasingly isolated modern landscape. My Dear Enemy is at once realistic and whimsical, a rare film that finds its characters at their lowest economic or emotional points, yet results in an upbeat coda without any sense of contrivance.
An earlier version of this review was posted at newkoreancinema.com