NYAFF Review: Couples


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

If there’s one genre that could use some variety in structure, it would be the romantic comedy. Basically every romantic comedy is a linear look at a storyline that hasn’t changed much in decades. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as most movies with Jason Segel in them have proved, but there’s always room for some experimentation. 

For example: do something like Vantage Point, where different characters witness different aspects of an event, filling in the audience’s understanding beyond that of any of the individual characters. Then make it romantic and funny. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Yeah it does.

And it totally is.

Couples (Kupeuljeu커플즈)
Director: Jeong Yong-Ki
Rating: NR
Country: South Korea

Although most of Couples takes place over the period of a single day, the story extends far beyond that. Two months prior to the beginning of the film, Yoo-Suk (Kim Ju-Hyeok)’s girlfriend Na-Ri (Lee Si-Young) disappeared during dinner. They had gone to a nice restaraunt, and she went to the bathroom and never came back, leaving Yoo-Suk to sit there like a fool in a very public place, with a full band with him ready to serenade her. So he hires his friend Bok-Nam (Oh Jung-Se) to find her for him, but it takes a while. Then one day he finds her. Moments later, something happens that causes four completely unrelated couples to come together, some of whom had known each other previously, and others who hadn’t. Over the course of the film, we not only see the way these four couples come together, but also how their budding relationships directly or indirectly affected the others’ in that short period of time.

Shifting perspectives is always a really interesting way to tell a story, because no two people will ever see things quite the same way. To one person, Yoo-Suk was abandoned at a restaraunt without any money, but a more informed person sees that Bok-Nam was actually kidnapped by the mob. These little misunderstandings are what make life interesting, and when they are exaggerated like that, they have the potential to make some very compelling moments. And they do. 

Kong Hyung-Jin in Couples Korean movie

I would say that we see the majority of the film at least twice, but each time it takes on a new meaning. What seems to be a throwaway line initially (“I guess I forgot to turn off the lights”) causes a huge moment of recognition later when you realize who actually forgot to turn them off. I feel like seeing the film a second time would be cool, because the connections you missed the first time come back and you realize just how clever everything is. You see in the back of the frame a particular object that affected something half the film ago, and you realize where they are in terms of space and time within that day and that universe. If you can see it with a group of people you like, I recommend playing a game of “Spot the Connection,” to see who can figure out what is related to what first. I wouldn’t recommend doing that in a theater, but at home with some friends I think it would be a lot of fun to do.

One thing that struck me while I was watching Couples is just how horrifying a character Na-Ri is, because she completely lacks anything resembling sympathy or empathy. I spent a significant portion of a school semester reading and writing about psychopaths, so I have a general sense of what psychopathic behavior looks like. I may not be explicitly qualified to say that the character of Na-Ri is, in fact, psychopathic, but she seriously is. Everything she does is disturbingly manipulative. The moment that clinched it for me was one where she was trying to convince one of the other characters to do something for her. She started faking all kinds of sad emotions, but he refused. In response, she immediately stopped “crying” and her face became completely stoic. That sort of false emotion is a very specific character trait of a psychopath, since psychopaths cannot actually feel real ones. It’s the reason that they’re so terrifying.

Lee Si-Young in Couples Korean Movie

But this isn’t I Saw the Devil, where a psychopath is a truly dangerous and terrifying enemy. This particular psychopath doesn’t get off on the terror and suffering of others. Instead, Na-Ri is simply interested in money. As Kanye West once said, “She ain’t messin’ with no broke broke.” And it’s true. When she finds out that Yoo-Suk has no more money (because he bought a house for them to live in), she goes off to find someone with a bit more cash. She unwittingly ends up with a gangster (Kong Hyung-Jin) who falls head-over-heels for her, but she has other plans. Seeing her character arc play out is absolutely bizarre, but in the best way. Even if she is really creepy, which she definitely is.

But this is a romantic comedy, and psychopaths are anything but romantic. So who does Yoo-Suk have to fall in love with? Ae-Yeon (Lee Yoon-Ji), a traffic cop who helps him out after he’s been unjustly accused of molestation during a bank robbery he was held hostage at. After that, the events of the day keep bringing them together. Ae-Yoon had also been in a bad relationship, so seeing the two of them grow together is quite nice.

Lee Yoon-Ji and Kim Ju-Hyeok in Couples Korean movie

Sometimes I have a tendency to gloss over comedy in my reviews, even when movies make me laugh a lot. I will not do that here. Couples is one of the funniest and cleverest romantic comedies I have seen in a long time. Watching for those connections was always very enjoyable, and catching them was so much more. Usually I hate it when people talk during movies, but I feel like this is one of those rare exceptions where some dialogue could actually enhance the experience. Even if people aren’t talking, this is definitely the kind of film to see in a group. Laughter is infectious, and having multiple people there to laugh with means you won’t have much time to breathe. From beginning to end, the comedy is absolutely spot on, and I can’t understate how beautifully everything fits together.

It’s almost like watching someone solve a massive puzzle, except it’s enjoyable to watch. Really enjoyable.

[You can see Couples at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, July 3rd at 6:00 PM or on Wednesday, July 4th at 1:00 PM]

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