Straddling an uneasy line between humor and pathos, Between Love & Hate, the tale of an affair between Yeong-hun (Kim Seung-woo), an engaged man working as a waiter in his mother’s restaurant and Yeon-ah (Jang Jin-yeong), a hostess in a karaoke bar, is a singularly frustrating experience. The drama signals the directorial debut of actor/screenwriter Kim Hae-gon. Starting out in theatre, by the age of twenty, Kim had already accumulated several awards. His first acting role in a film was in Im Kwon-taek’s The General (1990). He subsequently went on to star in some twenty films, including Saving My Hubby (2002), Taegukgi (2004), Marrying the Mafia 2 (2005), A Bittersweet Life (2005) and A Woman on the Beach (2006). Of the half dozen or so screenplays he has written, Failan (2001), starring Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Cheung is perhaps the best known.
The script for Between Love & Hate [The Unbearable Lightness of Dating], originally entitled “The Person I Miss,” is the first written by Kim and dates back nearly a decade. Kim’s script won an award for screenwriting from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) in 1998. In those years, film budgets averaged a little over 1 million dollars and the domestic market share was only 25%, with Hollywood movies accounting for the lion’s share of ticket sales. Shiri, the film that blew Titanic out of the water, was still a year away, and the fledgling Korean film industry was still in its infancy. The country was still coming to terms with a dictatorial past and draconian censorship, ruled illegal just 3 years before, was replaced by the Media Ratings Board. In 1998, one of the year’s highlights was the ingratiating melodrama Christmas in August, about a terminally ill photographer who becomes attached to a pretty young meter maid, which went on to become something of a model upon which other melodramas are based to this day.
In the intervening years, the film industry, society and the movie-going public have undergone many changes, and Kim’s ambitious first screenplay, which at the time might have appeared daring and even ground-breaking, now seems rather rough around the edges. Many of the youths who took part in the protest culture of the late ‘80s went on to become staff members of the present government or found careers in business, embracing the very materialism they found so reprehensible in their elders. Between Love & Hate is as much about this ongoing generational conflict and anti-authoritarianism as it is about the ill-fated couple that forms the basis of the story, and as such is a mirror of society at the time. Not only is Yeong-hun’s reluctance to unquestioningly accept an arranged marriage a critique of traditional values, the picture director Kim paints of Yeong-hun’s friends as irresponsible slackers runs counter to the officially condoned image of hard-working, studious and ambitious youth devoted to family and respectful of authority. The threat modern life poses to traditional Korean values is not without interest, as delayed marriages and skyrocketing divorce rates are cause for alarm and spousal abuse and news of celebrity divorces regularly make headlines in the tabloids. The film has an abundance of exuberant energy, but more than youthful rebellion is needed to sustain a running time of over 2 hours.
Jang Jin-yeong (Blue Swallow, 2005), who plays the barmaid Yeon-ah, received the Best Leading Actress award at the 5th Korean Film Awards for her performance, but it was her portrayal of Park Kyoung-won, the tomboyish heroine of Blue Swallow, that brought her to the attention of many critics and was perhaps more deserving of praise. In order to learn to behave like a genuine barmaid, the actress toured underground bars and room salons, yet there were things the actress could only know instinctively. In one scene, Yeong-hun, who has just vomited on himself after an alcoholic binge, demands that Yeon-ah perform fellatio on him. On another occasion, he insists that they make love while she is on her period. More than once Yeon-ah’s beatings called to mind Jake LaMotta’s assaulting his wife in Raging Bull. Is it any wonder that the actress says of her onscreen persona, “I couldn’t easily understand why she had to act that way,” or when she confesses her bewilderment (perhaps at the number of drubbings she had to endure), “I was embarrassed at times to stand in front of the camera and act like that”. The viewer, watching Yeon-ah sing “I Will Survive” in a karaoke room as white-clad images of her riding along the coastline with her lover fill the screen, can only echo her discomfort.
Speaking at a press conference, Kim Hae-gon said “I wanted to make a film about a sad parting, not about a beautiful love story,” “It’s probably because my life has been a rugged, bumpy one that the characters also came out looking a bit crude”, he said, shrugging. “Honestly, I did not want to wrap anything into a pretty lie. I wanted to show what’s real”. Far from being a model of cinema verité however, Kim’s film is laden with cinematic conventions and clichés, toilet humor and tasteless pranks, none of which appear to be in any way connected with the story. Yeong-hun regularly threatens and administers beatings to his younger, learning disabled brother. A group of kids urinate in public and are taken into custody by the police. Karaoke rooms which have become more or less a regular staple of Korean comedies, romances and gangster films, and which inevitably feature drunken men fondling bargirls, are here another opportunity to showcase bad singing and even worse acting. Soo-kyung, Yeong-hun’s fiancée, is no more than a two-dimensional character, a nonentity, and would have been better left out entirely. To make matters worse, the viewer is deprived of the usual incidental delights of set design, lighting and camera work that are almost taken for granted nowadays in Korean cinema and that make watching even low-budget comedies a tolerable if not outright enjoyable experience.
Between Love & Hate is a film distinguished by an alarming level of physical and emotional violence, profanity and crude humor. Through the duration of the movie, the characters don’t seem to realize the significance of their actions, and neither do we. The relationship between Yeong-hun and Yeon-ah often takes a backseat to other, unconnected events in the film. If the film would have been stronger had Yeong-hun’s fiancée/wife been dispensed with altogether, the same might be said of dozens of other characters who appear to serve no discernable purpose. The Unbearable Lightness of Dating is indeed an unbearable 120 minutes, an insubstantial story stuffed with all manner of irrelevant detail. Most egregiously, the film never adequately addresses the very real issue of domestic violence. Those looking for a film about an extramarital relationship could do worse than to seek out Yu Ha’s incomparable drama Marriage Is A Crazy Thing.
South Korea | 2006 | Directed by Kim Hae-Gon [김해곤] | Starring Kim Seung-Wu [김승우] (Yeong-hun), Jang Jin-Yeong [장진영] (Yeon-ah), Choi Bo-Eun [최보은], Kim Jun-Hee [김준희], Tak Jae-Hun [탁재훈], Oh Jeong-Se [오정세] and Oh Dal-Su [오달수]