LOVE FICTION, an appreciation.
by Ariel Esteban Cayer
Allow me to be upfront from the get-go. For having indulged in it more than once now (which I don’t normally do, especially in an intensely packed festival context where every single film is competing for your attention) Jeon Kye-soo’s Love Fiction has quickly elevated itself as a favorite of mine amongst the festival line-up. Yet at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be much more than the run-of-the-mill South Korean romantic comedy, does it? Yes and no. If by “conventional”, one mean incredibly effective and heartwarming, then yes. Love Fiction is, at its core, a perfectly well-made romantic comedy that has its heart in the right place…and then some. Undoubtedly recalling the incessantly witty romantic comedies of Woody Allen – in his better days, please think Annie Hall rather than Anything Else – via its slightly neurotic novelist as a main character and its main concern with blending the world of literature and (more peripherally) film into its love story narrative (hence the “fiction” in the title), Love Fiction is ultimately a terribly smart film that relies on one major element that sets it apart from most romantic comedies out there: the on-screen chemistry between its two leads.
Joo-wol (interpreted by an incredible Ha Jung-woo – sometimes Romanized as “Jeong” – who was in this year’s Nameless Gangster in addition to having stared in some of the biggest Korean movie of the last decade, including The Chaser or Kim Ki-Duk’s Time) suffers from a crushing case of writer’s block and when he meets the young and beautiful Hee-Jin at a film market party in Germany, he is crushed, thunderstruck by her good looks. Film importer, photography major and fascinating individual that so quickly could have devolved into the oft-seen manic pixie dream girl cliché if thrust in the hands of anyone else yet becomes a fully fleshed out protagonist alongside Joo-wol, Hee-Jin (the incredibly talented and beyond cute Kong Hyo-jin of 2008’s Crush and Blush) quickly becomes everything to the struggling writer as well as his main source of inspiration for the serial he’s now writing for his publisher — that is, Joo-wol’s projection of her as a potential femme fatale. Infectiously relatable for any nerdy types out there (yours truly included, obviously), Joo-wol’s pursuit of happiness alongside Hee-jin has all the ingredients to be the perfectly decent romantic comedy, yet director Jeon Kye-soo finds ways to consistently elevates his film higher. Cynical, playful and all-around hilarious, he directs inventively and proves, much like Allen but not exclusively like Allen, to be a master of the self-deprecating, reflexive voice-over, crafting a romantic comedy miles above most and carried by inventive editing and the superb going back and forth between the fiction Joo-wol is writing and the reality he is living– as the former is being shaped by the latter.
Providing all the heartbreak and gooey feelings one needs from the genre, that aspect of Love Fiction proves irresistible but what makes it reach soaring heights remains the undeniable — and unprecedented — level of chemistry that the two leads share, making their romance feel completely and utterly believable and relatable. Bubbly and utterly loveable, it is communicated through stolen glances, heartfelt laughter, passionate, if brief kisses and so on, making the film all the better. Earlier, I had written about it that Love Fiction is quite simply the most heartwarming, funny and engaging romantic comedy you’ll see all year – and it is absolutely true; two powerhouse performances from South Korea’s greatest stars that amounts to, when combine and stirred into a brilliant cocktail of emotions, one of the best times you’ll have in the theater this festival.