Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Good romantic comedies usually stick to the golden rule: Don’t stray too far toward other genres, especially trite melodramas. "Almost Love" (Cheongchun manhwa) is by and large a watchable romantic comedy, but it does not obey the rule – at its own risk.

Director Lee Han, who solidified his reputation as a young and promising Korean filmmaker with his debut work "Lovers Concerto," (2002), was given almost irresistible casting: top-stars Kwon Sang-woo and Kim Han-nuel.

Kwon and Kim showcased fine acting skills in their previous hit "My Tutor Friend (2003). So it is natural to expect that their new couple acting will be fun and thrilling. Months ahead of the release of the movie, a tantalizing rumor flared up that they were secretly dating, despite their strong denials. It boosted the publicity for the film, which is good for director Lee and marketing staff.

The question is whether the movie is indeed a decent romantic comedy as the promoters feverishly claim. When it comes to the first half of the film, it’s clearly a comedy. The Korean title, "Cheongchun manhwa," translates into "Youth Comics" in English, and various cartoonish episodes add up dramatic effects. 
For the latter half, however, it’s a melodrama that is so unconvincing and moralistic that a new title – perhaps "Cheongchun Ethics Textbook" – seems to be in order. Ji-hwan (Kwon Sang-woo) and Dal-rae (Kim Ha-neul) are age-old friends who have grown up in the same neighborhood. They share almost 13 years of childhood and adolescence, but they do not think of each other as a romantic partner because they know each other too well.

Ji-hwan is a taekwondo student at a college, and Dal-rae studies drama. He dreams of becoming Korea’s Jackie Chan while doing a part time job as a stuntman. Dal-rae continues to fail in auditions because she’s too timid in public. They make fun of each other about their respective weaknesses, but underneath such playful and mischievous exchanges, they vaguely begin to feel there’s something more than pure friendship.

Kwon’s comic acting is not bad. His weird hairstyle and refined delivery of key lines are strangely believable and unexpectedly entertaining. In contrast, Kim’s attractive image of the past is mostly gone; instead, her exaggerated facial expressions and poor delivery of otherwise funny lines are disappointing.

What sparks a crucial development in the plot has something to do with Ji-hwan’s dream. When the movie sheds its romantic comedy features and moves grudgingly toward a tear-jerking melodrama, it loses its star-power lust. More importantly, its extended melodrama segment adds to the running time to almost two hours, which is way too long for a simple cartoonish story.

On the face of it, the movie showcases how bad things can turn when the director is complacent about the top-level casting and does not explore new angles in offering a story that is supposed to delight audiences in a playful and light-hearted way.

Interestingly, the release date of this film is well-timed. There are no Hollywood blockbusters or big-budget Korean films, which means mainstream couples do not have many other options to watch when they hit multiplexes this weekend.

According to movie ticket agencies, "Almost Love" captured the No. 1 ranking in advance ticket reservations for this weekend, reflecting the popularity of Kwon and Kim. Of course, those who enjoyed "My Tutor Friend" are very likely to buy tickets for the new film where they are back together in three years.

For those ardent fans, cutting out the melodrama part and reducing the running time would have turned "Almost Love" into an almost fine love comedy.

By Yang Sung-jin



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