Archaeology of Love (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Recovering from a toxic relationship

South Korean independent film “Archaeology of Love” is a haunting character drama revolving around one toxic relationship and its aftermath. As dryly but sensitively observing its ordinary heroine’s emotional struggle along the story, the movie lets us understand and empathize more with her via a series of restrained but powerful personal moments, and that is why it is touching to see how she eventually finds some strength for moving forward more for herself.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a young archaeologist named Yeong-sil (Ok Ja-yeon), and then we watch her doing a little presentation about her profession in front of a bunch of disinterested high school students. She is not particularly enthusiastic about doing the presentation, but this is how she earns her meager living for now before another opportunity for her career comes. While watching her phlegmatically going through her another day in a little residence of hers, we come to gather that something is holding her, but she does not reveal much in her rather detached appearance, and we naturally come to wonder more about this unspecified matter of hers.

After it patiently and gradually establishes its heroine’s current status during its first act, the movie goes back to when Yeong-sil met a guy named In-sik (Giyoon) 8 years ago by a small coincidence. When she was working on her latest excavation project with her colleagues in some rural region, Yeong-sil happened to be approached by In-sik, who came for doing some job at a nearby museum as a recording technician. Although they were total strangers from the beginning, Yeong-sil soon found herself attracted to this lad, and it seemed that In-sik was also quite interested in getting closer to her.

As they later come to spend more time together, In-sik looks more like someone Yeong-sil can be serious about, and In-sik comes to show more of himself in response. He has run a little recording studio of his own, and Yeong-sil appreciates his skills a lot as another kind of professional. In the end, she decides to break up with her current boyfriend who has been more like a burdensome roommate, and then she begins to live more with In-sik during next several months.

However, there are some bad signs about which Yeong-sil should have been alarmed from the very beginning. Blatantly emphasizing how disadvantaged he is as becoming 40, In-sik wants Yeong-sil to be really serious about their relationship, and she agrees to follow his rather petty demands without much hesitation, but then she only finds herself verbally bullied and humiliated because of her ‘promiscuous’ past. He often asks about whom she slept with before him, and he becomes pretty nasty when he comes to learn about her little mistake with some guys in the past at one point.

You may think any sensible woman would quickly decide that enough is enough around that point, but Yeong-sil only finds herself stuck more with her toxic boyfriend as virtually gaslighted by him. Even when one of her colleagues points out that to her with sincere concern, she still hesitates about breaking up with In-sik, and her growing conflict consequently affects both her life and her career to considerable degree.

After enduring In-sik for no less than 8 years, Yeong-sil eventually decided to leave, but, already shown to us around the end of the first act of the movie, she is not totally free from In-sik yet. Although they are supposedly finished with each other as lovers, In-sik keeps meddling with her life in one way or another, and Yeong-sil unwisely lets that happen – until she finally becomes more aware of the toxic aspects of her relationship with In-sik.

Steadily maintaining its leisurely narrative pacing throughout its rather long running time (163 minutes), the movie slowly shows some signs of hope and healing as Yeong-sil continues to struggle and wander without much direction for herself. When she happens to encounter some nice and good-looking lad, she is naturally interested in him, but then she understandably hesitates as still reeling from her unhealthy relationship with In-sik. At least, she manages to restart her professional career bit by bit, and she also gets some therapeutic help and support, though that still does not make her feel much better than before.

Everything in the film depends a lot on Ok Ja-yeon’s quite but undeniably unforgettable lead performance, which does not often signify much on the surface but conveys to us a lot about her character’s complicated thoughts and feelings. As Ok’s terrific performance ably carries the movie, a number of good performers come and go as deftly supporting her, and Giyoon is particularly effective as a textbook case of toxic boyfriend.

“Archaeology of Love”, which was premiered at the Jeonju International Film Festival in last year but belatedly released here in South Korean theaters a few days ago, is the second feature film of director/writer Lee Wan-min, who previously made a feature film debut in “Jamsil” (2016). Like “Jamsil”, “Archaeology of Love” will require some patience from you during its first hour, but it will be quite a rewarding experience on the whole once you accept how it is about, and Lee demonstrates here that she is indeed one of more interesting South Korean filmmakers at present. Although she made only two feature films now, she is a talented filmmaker who really knows how to engage us via good mood and storytelling, and I will certainly look forward to watching whatever may come next from her.

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