When most non-Koreans think of Korean films, they think of deeply disturbed violence and bleak, depressing dramas (I know I used to). What they don’t think of is comedy, certainly not romantic comedy. It’s not as though there haven’t been excellent Korean romantic comedies (there have); it’s just that they don’t seem to travel as well as films like The Chaser and Oldboy.
And that’s a shame, because it means some really great films get overlooked by the ignorant moviegoer expecting the next blood-soaked revenge thriller. It means that Very Ordinary Couple will get overlooked.
Don’t be that ignorant moviegoer.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Very Ordinary Couple (Yeonaeui Wondo | 연애의 온도)
Director: Roh Deok
Country: South Korea
When Very Ordinary Couple starts, Lee Dong-Hee (Lee Min-Ki) and Jang Young (Kim Min-Hee) have already broken up. The greatest moments of their love lives are behind them, and they’re putting on a brave face for the rest of the world. Unfortunately for them, they’re also coworkers, and their desks are less than a stone’s throw apart. So where they should be able to say, “Whatever. I’m done. I never have to see them again,” they can’t, because they have to see each other five days for hours at a time. (They also hid their relationship from their coworkers, which makes the first big explosion all the more awkward for everyone.) But like many couples who broke up for reasons they can’t even remember, they eventually get back together. It’s a vicious cycle.
The film is presented as a bizarre mockumentary/narrative hybrid. It’s a fictional world with fictional characters who do things as they would in a regular narrative film, but sometimes they turn to look at the producer just to the left of the screen and start talking about their feelings, about what just happened, about what’s going to happen, whatever. The film attempts to justify this as part of some bizarre work-related film. The characters all work a bank, and a camera crew is apparently following them around in order to document workers’ lives. But because the camera crew is never seen and the person they’re supposedly talking to only appears as a voice off-screen in the opening moments of the film, it never feels like there’s a documentary being made. It just feels like the fourth wall is being broken by characters who aren’t sure where the camera is.
This bizarre decision makes the entire film somewhat surreal in a way that it shouldn’t. A couple of times, characters turn to the camera crew in completely inappropriate situations, and I had to reconsider the space that everyone was in. Where were the camera people in this small room, and why the hell did the characters allow them in there? (I had the same issue with End of Watch, although it’s not quite as bad here.) Some differences in the technical quality between the mockumentary and narrative footage would have gone a long way towards reconciling these problems. Usually in cases like this, there will be an overlay or a dip in visual fidelity or something to give the audience a hint, but here there’s nothing.
But I wanted to just get the bad stuff out of the way. The documentary stuff is dumb and unnecessary, but what is going on underneath it that is spectacular. Although it’s billed as a romantic comedy, Very Ordinary Couple is more like dramatic romance film with comedy stylings. Whether they’re dating or not, there is a very serious tension underlying Young and Dong-Hee’s relationship, and while it puts them in some very funny situations (the escalating pranks and stealthy stalking missions are classic) when it stopped being funny I realized that it was never the feelings that were funny, just what the feelings made people do. And that was only true sometimes. It’s funny when someone calls their boss to find out if their ex had slept with somebody; it’s less funny when that phone call ruins somebody’s marriage. The extreme violence that leads up to that phone call is also less funny.
Young and Dong-Hee are like real people, and even when their actions seemed exaggerated they never felt that way. Their lives had just been turned upside down and they’re both lying to everybody about how okay it is while sabotaging each other in hopes that everything will somehow fix itself. The emotions on display are never forced and never fake. They are anger and anguish and it works. When the couple reunites (because they can’t not), it’s a bittersweet moment, because as Young says, “Only 3% of couples who get back together stay together.” Yes, Very Ordinary Couple is a movie, but those aren’t good odds and a quip about winning the lottery doesn’t really inspire much confidence.
Which is why it works, because I never really knew what I was going to get. Are they going to get together again? Of course they are. There’s no reason for this to exist if they aren’t, but what then? That’s the part of a typical romantic comedy where everything is happy ever after. It works out. The breakup period can be long and horrible (if it happens), but when it’s resolved it’s resolved. Jason Segel goes home a happy man, credits roll. And venturing into the unknown, there’s a chance that Young and Dong-Hee will work things out. Only problem? It’s a 3% chance.
Regardless of the outcome (I won’t be spoiling it here), this isn’t a film that’s trying to convince anybody that love is perfect and that relationships are perfect. It’s not and they aren’t, because there are people on both ends of that hug, that kiss, that contact, and people are imperfect in all kinds of ways. Very Ordinary Couple understands that and reminds its viewers that at every turn. People are liars, but they care, but they are violent, but they try. When a trip to the amusement park turned the metaphorical roller coaster into a literal one, the film threatened to become just silly, but it works, and that roller coaster ride is a defining moment for the characters.
If it weren’t for the distracting and silly documentary overlay, Very Ordinary Couple would probably be my favorite film from the New York Asian Film Festival. (Ironically, my NYAFF favorite is a Korean Romantic Comedy with documentary-esque segments that totally work, review on that coming soon). And that’s because I believed in Lee Dong-Hee and Jang Young. When Very Ordinary Couple ended, I was willing to accept the way things went, for better or worse, and I understood that whatever happened wasn’t necessarily final. On again, off again, on again, off again, maybe they’re in that 3% and maybe they’re in the 97%. But that’s for them to decide.
And because they’re real, that decision will come eventually. There may not be a camera crew waiting or an audience to see it, but Dong-Hee and Young will find closure. Somehow. Somewhere. Somewhen.