Ten years ago or so I was watching a rather good relationship drama on DVD when my wife came into the room and asked: “so which of the two has the mysterious incurable disease?” “It’s not one of those films,” I replied, somewhat tetchily. Ten minutes later, a car crash killed off one half of the love interest. It unexpectedly turned out to be like one of those films after all, at least in the way it ended.
South Korea (and Japan) used to do “those” wonderful romantic melodramas where the couple either were prevented from expressing their love for each other or could never share their lives together. The movies had a formula and various familiar plot devices and scenes. You knew what you were getting, and although there might be variations on a theme, you got what you were expecting and were satisfied.
The genre seemed to fade away from the box office for a while, but has now made a triumphant return with Be With You, the debut feature from Lee Jang-hoon and starring Son Ye-jin, one of the leading lights of the genre’s flourishing. The London premiere screened as the first of this year’s teasers for the London Korean Film Festival.
The film’s scenario has a young father, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), mourning the premature loss of his wife, Soo-ah (Son Ye-jin), and doing his best to act as both mother and father to their young son Ji-ho (portrayed with a sense of naturalness by Kim Ji-hwan). Ji-ho, inspired by a fairy tale written for him by his late mother, looks forward to the coming rainy season, when he believes Soo-ah will return. Sure enough, someone very like his mother appears mysteriously at the first rain, but she has no memory of her life with Woo-jin and Ji-ho.
The movie features and plays with many of the plot devices that are so familiar from the early years of this century – the time of The Classic (Kwak Jae-young, 2002), which happens to be one of my favourite movies of the decade and which also stars Son Ye-jin. Plenty of near-miss road accidents tease you that while the director knows the conventions of the genre he’s not going to pull that particular plot device as a main driver of the drama; the male lead, So Ji-sub, has a mysterious disease that causes him to faint when he over-exerts himself; other devices such as love across a time barrier (remember Il Mare?); memory loss; diaries or letters providing flash-back material that adds poignancy to the narrative; rain storms and umbrellas providing the meteorological backdrop to a slowly germinating love… Just about the only plot device that this movie lacks is the backstory that the two would-be lovers are long-lost siblings and so cannot live as husband and wife.
If all the above makes the movie sound clichéd, well, that’s not too far from the truth. But isn’t that sometimes what you want? And the film is so expertly executed, with scenes of humour (often provided by Woo-jin’s best friend, the larger-than-life uncle Hong-goo, played by Go Chang-seok) and intentional awkwardness (as the two lovers shyly explore their initial mutual attraction during their schooldays), along with tenderness and tragedy, all blending with each other into a well-rounded whole. Most importantly though, if you’re not blubbing uncontrollably at various points in this lovely thing you are a heartless brute.
Lee Jang-hoon (이장훈) Be with you (지금 만나러 갑니다, 2017)