Lee Yoon-ki’s Love Talk captures the drifting, rootless nature of an immigrant community

Lee Yoon-ki is a director who divides opinion. He is known for his delicate, nuanced character portraits which delight many an art-house enthusiast but which for those who like things to happen in their movies are a big turnoff. Love Talk will appeal to those who are in between.

Sunny takes a booking at her massage parlour
Sunny takes a booking at her massage parlour

Love Talk (2006) is Lee’s second feature and revolves around three interesting characters in the Korean immigrant community in California. Sunny (Bae Jong-ok) is the owner of a full-service massage parlour who sometimes services the clients herself. Young-shin (Park Jin-hee) runs a late night phone-in radio show called Love Talk in which she gives agony aunt advice to women having relationship problems. Ji-seok (Park Hee-soon) is a lonely man who works in a video rental store.

The domesticated Jiseok
The domesticated Jiseok does the washing up as Sunny looks on

All three main characters have their own particular sadness to them. Ji-seok is possibly the least satisfactory of the characters. Rather like the man (Hyun Bin) in Lee Yoon-ki’s latest film Come Rain Come Shine (2011), he’s a handsome, sensitive type who really needs to get in touch with his inner caveman. He is the living embodiment of Kyung-hyun Kim’s thesis about men in Korean film needing a decent dose of remasculinisation. Ji-seok is obviously heterosexual, spending much of his free time hanging out in a hostess bar, but is really an emotional drifter, not wanting to say much, not wanting to commit, never wanting to make the first move. We long to know how he came to be so passive. In a rare moment of decisiveness he plans a day out with his favourite hostess only to find that she has a daughter and an aggressive husband. He drifts on, and by chance bumps into an old high school girlfriend from Seoul. Or rather, almost-girlfriend, because Ji-seok being Ji-seok, the relationship never got serious, and was never really going to.

Young-shin dispenses advice
Young-shin dispenses advice on her Love Talk show

The almost-girlfriend is Young-shin, who seems to be caught between wanting to make something of the old relationship and wanting to move on from it. She has no other ties apart from to her mother, with whom she appears to live, and who whiles away her days watching K-dramas and popping Prozac. Young-shin discovers her mother’s pills by accident, coincidentally shortly after discussing anti-depression pills on her radio show. It sums up her persona on the talk show: talking about things which impact people’s lives, but without any real practical experience of them herself. She has a comfortable job, drives a comfortable car, lives a comfortable life with her mother, her only real worries being what brand of washing machine to buy for the apartment. She mouths platitudes on the talk show, always turning the questions back on the callers themselves and refusing to give of her own experience.

Ji-seok and Sunny in a quiet conversation at Sunny's house
Ji-seok and Sunny in a quiet conversation at Sunny’s house

One of her callers is Sunny, who accuses her of this very thing – of lacking the real-life experience to be able to dish out such important advice to people. That doesn’t stop Sunny calling the show, but not even Sunny can articulate what she wants to talk about. Sunny, probably the most go-getting of the three characters, has a long-standing casual relationship with Andy, her massage parlour’s security guard, with regular almost matter-of-fact sex. But perhaps unusually in a relationship, it’s the man who wants commitment and the woman who doesn’t want to be controlled. Sunny wants to keep things purely physical, but doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in that either. We later find out one reason why she wants to keep Andy at arm’s length – she has an angry husband who’s just about to be let out of jail – but even so we wonder about why she is unable to feel much emotion. Completing the circle, Sunny’s lodger is none other than Ji-seok, with whom she could so easily find consolation for her loneliness, except for the fact that neither side wants to make the first move.

Young-shin and Ji-seok
Is Ji-seok receding into the background of Young-shin’s life?

None of the characters seem to be fully part of the world they live in, none of them want to commit. They all seem to live in a sense of in-between-ness, drifting from one place to another with no real ties and not seemingly wanting to form any. Watching from the outside, you are urging them on, wanting them to get together, to form lasting bonds, but Lee Yoon-ki teases you with the possibilities but never offers you the resolution. For those who have read Krys Lee’s thoughtful and highly recommended debut collection of short stories Drifting House the in-between atmosphere and characters will seem familiar.

A minor distraction in the movie is that, being set among the Korean immigrant community in America, sometimes the actors slip into English. But the English sounds like it is rote-learned rather than spoken by people who understand what they are saying. Rather like Lee Young-ae’s character in JSA, you wish they’d just stuck to Korean. But this is a minor quibble. This film is one to which you will want to return.

Lee Yoon-ki (이윤기): Love Talk (러브토크, 2005) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

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