My two favorite discoveries in four years of festival going are the films of Hong Sangsoo and the team of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. I surely would have encountered these guys eventually in the regular world, but it was in seeing their films here at VIFF (Like You Know it All and Sparrow, in 2009 and 2008, respectively) that I fell in love with them. Subsequently, with each new festival I’ve looked forward to another trip into their worlds and this year is no exception. While I’ll be seeing the latest Hong film, In Another Country, this evening, I was a bit disappointed to find there would be no new To and/or Wai film here this year. Fortunately, the gap of narrative playfulness that so joyously marks their work (Wai’s especially, see for example, Written By, from VIFF 2009) I found in abundance in Romance Joe, by first-time director Lee Kwangkuk.
Lee is a former assistant director for Hong Sangsoo, and the film begins very much as a kind of mishmash of various Hong situations (a director has writer’s block, gets drunk, goes to a hotel in the countryside). However, Lee takes Hong’s narrational games, usually limited to a bifurcated story structure with later parts serving as variations on earlier ones, in a wholly original direction, piling story upon story in a complicated flashback structure. I counted at least six different time levels in the narration (topping Passage to Marseille‘s mere four), with “real” memories and made-up stories featuring the same characters and actors colliding in unpredictable ways. I’m going to attempt to roughly chart it out.
The film starts with the parents of a director talking to his friend about how the director has gone missing (1). The friend tells them he was just drinking with the director, and he was sad because he had writer’s block (2). We then see the director being abandoned by his agent in a rural hotel in an attempt to force him to get to work (3). The director in his hotel calls a local prostitute, who tells him the story of the time she met another director, who she calls Romance Joe (4). When she met him, Joe was thinking about killing himself, remembering a time when he was a teenager that he saved a girl, Cho-hee, from killing herself. (5) Then, we cut back to the first story, and the friend starts telling the parents about his idea for a new screenplay, about a boy who tries to track down his mother, a prostitute, but instead ends up hanging around another call girl instead (6).
At this point, Lee begins to intercut between the various narrative layers, with fictional and real characters showing up in the “wrong” stories, and no one ever quite remembering if they’ve known each other before (there’s more than half a dozen stories, but apparently(?) only one woman), all governed by an explicit Alice in Wonderland reference. But that’s not to say there isn’t an emotional core to the film. In particular the budding romance between Joe and Cho-hee is lovely and touching, though it ends drenched in the neon sadness of Seoul. As the director’s mother sighs “All these fine young lives wasted on film and whatnot.”