Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: OUR LOVE STORY (2016)

dir. Lee Hyun-ju
star. Lee Sang-hee, Ryu Sun-young 

Every time a queer film comes along in Korea and gets critical acclaim and committed fan support yet it is still one of the very few queer content locally produced and commercially released, I can’t help but wonder and wish at the same time: In this day and age, shouldn’t we deserve more? I, for one, thought we’d already be flooded with all sorts of queer stories well into this century. In Korea, as elsewhere in the world, queer moviegoers, especially women with same-sex desire, have had a long history of searching a vast sea of movies for stories that speak directly to them, only to realize what an underserved audience they are.

That particular queer film I just mentioned that greeted local fans and earned their loyalty, by the way, is Our Love Story, a debut feature from Seoul-bred filmmaker Lee Hyun-ju. To a certain degree it garnered the attention and praise of critics, film fests, and the country’s specific demographic alike by virtue of being a rare, thoroughly lesbian-themed movie. While that is undoubtedly a factor in the movie’s success, at least within the range of art-house indie fare, the success is ultimately attributable to the fact that the movie’s unvarnished, tender, delicately-constructed realism resonates with long-overlooked audiences.

Indeed, for certain women, the protagonist Yoon-joo and her surroundings seem all too familiar: that cramped room with neither view nor personality; dull apartments and dimly-lit alleys and pubs where harmless conversations get punctuated by unintended rudeness; the sorts of behavioral prudence a person acquires and the pressure she feels to constantly lie as a closeted lesbian. Lee Hyun-ju combines a calm observer’s eye, a trained ear for the natural rhythms of everyday life, and well-practiced restraint to reconstruct all these complexities present in the lives and minds of young, city-dwelling women with same-sex desire.

Since the specificity of the sociocultural setting in which the story takes place is vital to spectators’ appreciation of these women’s inner turmoil, Lee devotes the first few scenes to quickly sketching in the details of the milieu her characters inhabit. The irony is that, in this world filled with things at once mundane and unattainable, there always exists a pervasive sense of lacking, or inadequacy: it seems to reflect Yoon-joo’s struggles—and lack of the ability—to fulfill the demands society puts on her and live with contentment and honesty. It is against this backdrop that Ji-soo walks into Yoon-joo’s world and soon dominates it.

Despite the epithets like “hyper-realism” it earned among fans for its naturalism, Our Love Story is very much a structured piece of filmmaking. Lee particularly forges a crucial link between the characters’ sexuality and their desire for (economic) self-sufficiency. Yoon-joo sees in Ji-soo’s rooftop apartment hopes for the sustainability of her romance and the faint possibility of having a home of her own. But once Ji-soo moves out of that apartment and leaves Seoul, fissures materialize between Yoon-joo’s idealism and the real world that’s not so accepting of lesbians. Her lover’s gone, and so is their Arcadian place that has offered the couple a chance for sexual freedom, as well as an illusion of security. Continuing this downward spiral, Yoon-joo hits a nadir when she comes out to her roommate and gets rejected and shunned.

But Yoon-joo’s crises hardly claim the sole focus of the movie; they are juxtaposed with Ji-soo’s own in the scenes where she starts acting cautiously around her father once she’s moved back in with him. Having her self-assurance stripped away, Ji-soo battles her own inner contradictions. Throughout, Lee makes a point of suggesting that whatever battle Yoon-joo is fighting right now, Ji-soo has already gone through it. In her interview with weekly magazine “Cine21,” the director summed up her movie thus: “Ji-soo is the future of Yoon-joo, and Yoon-joo is the past of Ji-soo.” It indicates the director’s ambition of re-creating a slice of the transpersonal experience of Korea’s urban lesbian and bisexual women, whose unique positioning within society has hitherto received little or no cinematic treatment.

Our Love Story’s achievement also owes a great deal to the lead actors Lee Sang-hee and Ryu Sun-young. The whole of it is truly a product of synergy between the director’s dexterous handling of the subject-matter and the performers’ commitment to rendering their alter egos as realistic as possible, thereby amplifying the empathy already evoked in varying spectator groups—especially, lesbian and bisexual women. This is best illustrated by the couple’s first sex scene shot in the bright morning light, where Lee Hyun-ju is generous with her close-ups, a temporary yet timely departure from the film’s otherwise predominantly neutral, omniscient mode. Still, the scene has none of the shaky cam that most filmmakers tend to overly use to denote excitement. The director’s exactingly-modulated camera distance and the actors’ effortlessly expressed yet subtly calculated gestures conspire to convey the gradual build-up of excitement and bliss. I wouldn’t call it an overstatement to say this is the best crafted queer sex scene Korea’s ever seen.

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