To be frank with you, I did not have much expectation when I read the synopsis of “Architecture 101”. Though the title sounds indeed different from other countless romance films we have encountered, the story is very familiar on the verge of being clichè; a boy met a girl – and a man meets a woman 15 years later. I bet you will get a pretty good idea about what happened or what will happen in 10 seconds.
However, surprisingly, the movie exceeds my expectation a lot in two ways. The story is exactly what I expected, and it is told exactly in the form I predicted, but it is handled with lots of care and sensitivity while never overplaying its emotions. I really cared about the characters, and their story has grown on me with wistful bittersweet feeling after watching it. Furthermore, this is one of few romance films where the occupation of characters has lots of significance in their story. In one of the important points in the movie, because they study architecture together, a boy tries to give a girl the model of her dream house constructed by himself. Isn’t that more refreshing than the routine declarations of love with flowers we have witnessed before in other romance films?
The movie begins with Seo-yeon(Han Ga-in) coming to the architecture company where Seung-min(Eom Tae-woong) works. She wants her family house in Jeju-do to be renovated for her ailing father, and she asks him to design the plan for this renovation job. Though he initially does not recognize her at first, Seung-min agrees to do the job because her appearance reawakens the old memory with her during their college days.
The movie goes back and forth between the past and the present while the plan for the renovation is concocted and then executed with several modifications added later. 15 years ago, young Seung-min, played by Lee Je-hoon at this point, was a college freshman who had just begun his study in the Architecture department. One of the lectures he attended was, not so surprisingly, Architecture 101, and that was how he had a Meet Cute moment with a charming girl from the Music department, who was none other than young Seo-yeon(Suzy).
As the lecture progresses, their romance plot gets thickened. Because they live in the same area, they happen to go around and observe the places as a part of their study, so we get several lovely intimate looks of Seoul while observing the feelings growing between them. I once complained to others that Seoul is full of bland concrete apartment buildings, but, when Seung-min and Seo-yeon gets the panoramic view of the countless apartments at the rooftop of an apartment building, it took me back to how much of abstract wonder these buildings brought to me when I was a kindergarten kid.
The director/writer Lee Yong-joo previously made an impressive debut with “Possessed”(2009). It was a fairly good horror film, and that shabby apartment building felt so spooky in the mundane rhythm of daily life that I even mentioned “Rosemary’s Baby”(1968) in my review while describing that plain but ominous building where something might lurks at the corner or that dark basement.
Of course, “Architecture 101” is far different from “Possessed”, but you can see how Lee Yong-joo is good at setting the scenes and their atmospheres through the places and the buildings from both films(no wonder that he once studied Architecture). Different times and places are imbued with distinctive feelings, so we do not get lost during the constant jumping between the past and the present. While walking along those narrow residential alleys of Seoul, Seung-min and Seo-yeon find one nice empty house with an old-fashioned style; when Seo-yeon cleans it as their special place, it looks nicer with lots of nostalgia brought on me. As the crucial part of the story, Seo-yeon’s house is located in the nice environment along with the calm beach scenery in front of it, and, when it is finally renovated, the result is really a good work with lots of cares and considerations to be appreciated behind the design. In fact, it is so good that you may wonder how much money Seo-yeon has received as the alimony from her failed marriage.
And I also like how architecture is connected not only its looks but also with its story. We can instantly see that the lecture itself is a framing device of the plot, and this storytelling device perfectly fits with the story itself. Like they look around the places to find something they have never looked at before, they also find something hidden in their hearts in the progress. While the story at the present is progressed, it becomes apparent that the renovation job is both professionally and personally a serious matter to Seug-min; how can he and Se-yeon deal with the memory of their half-built romance left in their past?
Though the plot becomes creaky at times despite its strength in many aspects, the performances of four principle performers are the firm foundation for the story to be built on. While Eon Tae-woong and Han Ga-in are good as jaded older characters, Lee Je-hoon and Suzy have a good chemistry between them as the center of the story. Because I was very impressed by Lee Je-hoon’s breakthrough performances in “Bleak Night”(2010) and “The Front Line”(2011) in the last year, I am very glad that the movie shows another different side of his immense talent. Like any other naive young men facing the first feeling of love, Seung-min gets awkward, nervous, hesitant, and tentative, and Lee Je-hoon always hits the right tone; his scenes with his close friend(scene-stealing Cho Jeong-Seok) who gives lots of amusing advices on the love relationship are particularly hilarious. I am not so familiar with Suzy, who is more known as a popular singer in South Korea, but I can say that she is simply beautiful as the emblem of first love; many of you probably recall such a girl like her in your life. You may complain that this young handsome couple is not connected with their plain adult counterpart, but, hey, isn’t that how you remember your younger days?
The movie has lots of nostalgic elements inside its story, and I think it will especially appeal a lot to the South Korean audiences who were in college around the 1990s. Though I was just a young teenager during that time, I remember many things, and I found the tiny details of South Korea during the 1990s shown here and there in the film are very enjoyable to watch. I remember how I was delighted to get a portable CD player – and it is quite amusing now to think that there was a time when I and others could live with the computer whose hard disk size was around or below 1GB.
“Architecture 101” is a rare romance film which can be described as both smart and sensitive. It knows how to establish the ground for the romance, how to build it on the ground, and how to furnish it with real fragile emotions inside its adult characters. Thankfully free of overblown melodrama which usually plagues around other South Korean romance movies, it has quiet, restrained but effective emotional moments, and it is rewarding to watch how it carefully constructs its story with them as the building blocks to the satisfying ending. There still exist some feelings inside their hearts, but the years have passed, and Seung-min and Seo-yeon are sensible enough to know what cannot be done in their present circumstance. But their memory of first love is precious enough to be remembered, and it is beautifully rendered into one good job – you may want to buy it, perhaps.