South Korean film “Our Love Story” is a wonderfully intimate drama revolving around one specific romantic relationship. As they get closer to each other after their incidental encounter, they move onto the next step, but then there is always the reality they must deal with everyday – even when they are happy together. As they become confused or frustrated with their relationship, they come to arrive at the universal point any couple would go through at least once. Can they possibly continue their relationship? And can they accept their relationship as something more mundane and enduring than a mere sweet romance?
The first half of the movie is mainly told via the viewpoint of Yoon-joo (Lee Sang-hee), an art college student preparing for the exhibition project for graduation along with her schoolmates. They are going to present their respective works under the guidance of their adviser professor, and Yoon-joo is planning to make her work from various metallic junks to be obtained from a nearby junkyard.
When she is looking for anything useful at the junkyard, a young woman around her age comes, and Yoon-joo later encounters her again at a convenience store. When Ji-soo (Ryoo Seon-yeong) has a small trouble with buying a pack of cigarette, Yoon-joo gives her a little help, and then she gets to know a bit about Ji-soo as smoking together. While she turns out to be younger than Yoon-joo, Ji-soo looks more assured and confident compared to Yoon-joo, and she seems to sense something from her new acquaintance. When she suggests that Yoon-joo should drop by one of the bars where she works during evening and night, Yoon-joo seems reluctant, but she eventually goes there along with her two colleagues during one evening.
While that small evening drinking meeting does not end well to Yoon-joo’s dismay, Yoon-joo finds herself more attracted to Ji-soo, but she is still not so sure about what she wants. Unlike her ebullient roommate who is quite forthright about the ongoing relationship with her current boyfriend, Yoon-joo is not interested in dating boys, but then she has never dated boys or girls before, and her doubt and hesitation feel palpable to us as we look at her shy, passive appearance.
In contrast, as a more sexually experienced woman, Ji-soo knows what she wants and, perhaps, what Yoon-joo wants. Not long after Yoon-joo goes back to sleep, she calls and invites Yoon-joo to another drinking meeting. As they drink wine together at her residence, they get to know more about each other, and they soon sleep together and then move onto the next logical step as driven by what is clearly being felt between them.
The sequence showing their first sex is tastefully and realistically handled with considerable warmth and sensitivity, and I cannot help but admire what the director/writer Lee Hyeon-joo and her two performers achieve here. While the characters are not completely naked, their intimate emotional connection is evident in front of our eyes, and the handheld camera feels like an unseen companion as closely watching their progress. After the Q&A session followed by the screening I attended during this Saturday evening, I told Lee how much I was impressed by this vivid, realistic sequence, and I also pointed out to her that some of the sounds heard during the sequence felt like the noises being made by her cinematographer Son Jin-yong, who did a terrific job of capturing the characters’ dynamic emotional interactions on the screen. I do not know whether it was joking or not, but Lee replied to me that my impression might be correct at least partially.
And I was touched by how Ji-soo respects Yoon-joo’s hesitation and following request at one point. When Yoon-joo clearly expresses no during their first trial, Ji-soo agrees to that without any complaint at all, and they later have a sex under mutual consent when Yoon-joo says she is ready. I think there is an important lesson to be learned by any teenagers regardless of their sexuality, and the 18-rating of the movie, which will unfortunately prevent South Korean adolescents from watching it during its upcoming theatrical release in South Korea, is rather unfair in my humble opinion considering that.
In addition, the movie is also about other things besides sexuality. After their first sex, Yoon-joo and Ji-soo begin to consider living together as a couple, but they are also reminded of each own matters of reality. Ji-soo is going to move back to her family home in Inchon where she is going to live with her Christian widower father, who has no idea on her daughter’s sex life and is still expecting that she will marry someday. Frequently occupied with her first romantic relationship, Yoon-joo comes to struggle a lot in her assignment, and then she feels like being drifted apart from her girlfriend especially after Ji-soo moves back to Inchon. Although they continue to meet each other from time to time, Yoon-joo is disappointed and frustrated when Ji-soo hides their relationship from her father, and that makes their relationship more strained than before.
While it is basically a melodramatic love story, the movie maintains its unadorned, restrained storytelling approach, and the emotional undercurrents surrounding its two heroines are further supported by numerous realistic details to notice. I appreciated the myriad details shown at a workshop for Yoon-joo and her colleagues, and Lee later told me about how she tried to make that place realistic with several authentic artworks specially prepared for her movie. I must tell you that the workshop does look like a real place where aspiring young artists like Yoon-joo would spend many hours, and the same thing can be said about other places and locations shown in the movie, which effectively function as realistically mundane parts of our heroines’ ongoing daily life.
As the heart and soul of the movie, Lee Sang-hee and Ryoo Seon-yeong are natural and engaging in their nuanced performances which constantly generate subtle emotional dynamics based on their undeniable chemistry. While the movie is basically Lee and Ryoo’s show, the supporting performers surrounding them are also excellent in their respective roles, and I was especially amused by the reversal of a certain movie cliché shown from Yoon-joo’s former schoolmate.
Because it is released in South Korea in the same year, “Our Love Story” is inevitably compared with Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (2016), though they are different from each other as much as apple and orange. While the latter is a lavish, steamy, and kinky erotic period thriller, the former is a warm, modest, and earnest romantic contemporary drama, and both of them have each own things to distinguish themselves as two of the most memorable South Korean films of this year – and their success may open more doors to diversity to enjoy and appreciate for South Korean audiences.
By the way, as watching the indeterminate finale of “Our Love Story”, I was reminded of what my late friend Roger Ebert wrote in his review for Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” (1992): “True love involves loving another’s imperfections, which are the parts that tend to endure.” I do not know what future lies before them, but I sincerely hope that Yoon-joo and Ji-soo will agree to his words.