Subtly sensitive and somberly observant, South Korean film “The First Lap” looks into the anxious uncertainty of a young ordinary couple. Like any other young happy couples, they simply want to continue their life as usual, but then they become more aware of how uncertain and vulnerable their relationship is, and the movie gradually immerses us into the quiet emotional undercurrents around them.
In the beginning, we get to know a bit about Su-hyeon (Cho Hyun-chul) and Ji-young (Kim Sae-byeok). While Su-hyeok works at a private art institute, Ji-yeong is a contract employee in some network enterprise, but their respective careers do not seem to be going anywhere at present. Su-hyeok has considered applying for a graduate course, but, as shown from a later scene in the film, he does not know well what to do for that. While she may get promoted someday, Ji-young has been stuck in her current position for years, and maybe she should consider any other option for her career.
At least, they have been fine as living together for 7 years, but there comes a small unexpected thing. Ji-young tells Su-hyeon that her menstruation has been unusually late, and they naturally cannot help but wonder whether they can be more committed in their relationship than before. Maybe they should marry for solidifying their longtime relationship, but neither of them is particularly willing to move onto the next step of their relationship.
Meanwhile, they are invited to the new apartment of Ji-young’s affluent middle-class parents. The mood is initially cordial between them and Ji-young’s parents, but it soon becomes clear to us that her mother is not so happy to see that Ji-young has not married yet. When Ji-young’s mother expresses her dissatisfaction more blatantly during their dinner, Ji-young apparently feels hurt by that, and the mood becomes very awkward to everyone.
In contrast, Ji-young’s father respects whatever his daughter wants, and he has a frank conversation with Su-hyeon while they are outside the apartment. Ji-young and her mother also come to have a private moment between them, but Ji-young only finds herself more frustrated and exasperated, and that evening eventually ends as she and Su-hyeon leave earlier than expected.
A few days later, Su-hyeon and Ji-young go to his hometown together for attending his father’s birthday party. Their drive to his hometown is mostly pleasant, but we soon see why Su-hyeon is reluctant to bring Ji-young to his hometown. While his family is less affluent than her family, his father is nothing but an alcoholic loser, and there is a brief scene where Su-hyeon glumly looks around his father’s messy residence.
At least, Su-hyeon’s long-suffering mother is nice to Ji-young as well as Su-hyeon, and we get a warm moment as she and Ji-young prepare for the birthday party together, but then there comes a point where she decides that enough is enough. The movie wisely sticks to its restrained mode even during that moment, and the result is one of the most effective moments in the film.
As they see how problematic their respective parents are, Su-hyeon and Ji-young become more anxious about their future. Will they able to continue to live together as usual? Will they able to accept those inevitable changes coming into their relationship in the future? At one point, they happen to have a small argument with each other, and that only makes them feel far more uncertain about where their relationship is going now.
Leisurely rolling its two main characters from one narrative point to another, the movie is brimming with considerable spontaneity thanks to the competent direction by director/writer Kim Dae-hwan, who previously made “End of Winter” (2014). Several key scenes in the film were actually improvised during the shooting, and one of these scenes was really shot in the middle of a big political event which was recently held in Seoul. Many of private scenes between Su-hyeon and Ji-young are always presented with genuine intimacy and tenderness, and we instantly accept them as two people who have been close to each other for years.
Never interrupting the overall low-key atmosphere of the movie, Kim Sae-byeok and Cho Hyun-chul constantly engage us via their unadorned natural performances. During one particular long take scene, not many things seem to happen on the surface as the camera calmly observes their characters from its static position, but they ably convey their characters’ emotional states even when we cannot see their faces, and this scene somehow becomes funny and poignant in the end.
While definitely demanding some patience from you due to its low-key tone and slow narrative pacing, “The First Lap” is a rewarding experience on the whole, and I admire its thoughtful handling of mood and characters. Nothing much is resolved between its two main characters even during the finale, but you will come to understand and emphasize with them as closely observing them, and you will also hope that things will soon get better for them. Everything is uncertain as before, but they are still young, aren’t they?