Ha Jung-woo, left photo, shines as the lovesick writer Goo Joo-wol. Best-known for his ruthless killer roles, Ha proves his versatility in Jeon Gye-soo's genre-bending film "Love Fiction", currently in theaters nationwide.
The marketing drive for "Love Fiction" was systematic and fierce. Backed by four of today's hottest stars in the credits and inflating for more than a month, the hype was ripe. And it was effective, attracting more than 450,000 moviegoers in two days, since its release Wednesday.
That is because the newest film by Jeon Gye-soo cannot be summarized in a few words. Though much of the promotional material says it is a tale of a timid, clueless flake chasing a gorgeous woman with an eccentric body-grooming custom, it is not as simple as that.
It is a perplexing tribute to love, a brutally honest portrayal of its progressive steps - from courtship to fizzling out. It is a satire of the bachelor social ladder, on top of which sit three-piece suits and white gowns while the rock bottom is occupied by poor artists. It is a story of a writer's block, which the protagonist hopes to overcome with a muse.
It is a story of the man in its unpasteurized form: that needy, selfish and affection-seeking part of the human male species taking shape as the protagonist Goo Joo-wol (played magnificently by Ha Jung-woo).
He is an author of popular novels, and he cannot seem to start another volume after the first work's modest success. He needs a muse, he claims, and finds one in Hee-jin, after running into her at a party in Berlin. The relationship is not without hurdles, as the writer confronts Hee-jin's quirks one by one. She is an unpredictable divorcee who does not shave her armpits. Inspired by the object of his love, he starts a new online series, "Mrs. Armpit Hair".
"The film's angle is from a man's perspective - 100 percent", said Jeon, Wednesday. "I worked on the film anticipating some negative feedback from women. Gong Hyo-jin (who plays Hee-jin) did have several problems with the story, but I think this (movie) is my response to those concerns".
Indeed, other female moviegoers who attended advance screenings expressed their discomfort after watching it, flooding the blogosphere with their voices against the quasi-universal praise from the press.
"Reality can be ragged, pathetic and desperate", said Jeon, adding that he expected the audience to ask why they have to watch that sad truth on the silver screen instead of a fairy tale with a prince charming.
But the result is breathtaking - the two-hour running time never drags - thanks to the compact script, well thought-out pace and Ha's knockout performance.
It is his first time in a lovey-dovey feature, but he is a natural. Jeon's first choice from the very beginning - five years ago - Ha is astonishing in his movement. His acting is holistic; he seems to use every controllable muscle in his body, breezes through elongated monologues and fills silences with charisma. His hopeless love is just as convincing as his clumsy attempt at a one-night-stand. He apologizes to Hee-jin's underarm with startling seriousness. Everything is believable with Ha.
"I find the (name's) sound important", said Jeon, explaining the puzzling name of Goo Joo-wol. "It has that sound of a character that steps out the door of his house at around 2 p.m. in his pajamas, loitering about without doing much, like a neighborhood rogue complaining about society".
Kong may have a less important, less dynamic part in general but does an adequate job of maintaining that mix of charm and feminine mystery so many men have trouble with while dating.
"The film is hopefully everything that a man can experience in love", said Jeon, "in two hours" (of running time).
Ji, who plays Goo's brother, is a perfect antidote to that fool in love, living a life with zero ambition. The actor that embodies refinement above all else is instead wasting away at home doing nothing but eating ramen and watching TV. He is excellent.
Yoo has the least amount of screen time but impresses as Goo's ex and a character in the cutaway scenes of "Mrs. Armpit Hair", using overdramatic old-cinema voices.
Jeon said he was inspired by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his 1991 film "Delicatessen" to become a director, and the influences do show. There are also similarities to the fantastical style of fellow Frenchman Cedric Klapisch, of "Auberge Espagnole (2002)" fame.
But he seemed to be refreshingly carefree, modest and confident at the same time.
"I'm just glad I can make a living by making movies".
Currently in theaters. Runs 121 minutes. Rated 15 and over. Distributed by Next Entertainment World.
By Kwaak Je-yup
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53rd Baeksang Arts Awards 2017