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Petty Romance
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by Jay Seaver

"Romance. Comics."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The dynamic of a comic book's writer and artist could (at least potentially) be a great formula for a romantic comedy; it's often two strangers brought together by circumstance who find themselves having to work together and adapt to the way the other thinks to create something together. "Petty Romance" does that fairly well, and gets points for doing it as a mainstream comedy rather than something pitched to the comic-reading crowd, although it could use a talented writer of its own.

Jeong Bae (Lee Seon-gyun) is a manhwa creator with a knack for drawing action but who struggles with dialogue, a weakness that just got a project he'd worked on for years rejected - and he needs the money to get a painting by his father back. The good news is that an editor friend has just announced an international adult comics contest with a $100,000 prize. With the deadlines tight and personal stakes high, he looks for a writer. He winds up with Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee), a translator whose penchant for creativity (despite lacking any knowledge of the subject) just got her fired from translating articles from international women's magazines for their Korean editions.

It is, by the nature of the genre, almost a given that Bae and Da-rim will wind up together, but to writer/director Kim Jeong-hoon's credit, there's enough genuine antagonism between them at the start that it doesn't necessarily seem like a good idea: Da-rim is a pushy screw-up with an unearned high opinion of herself, while Bae is a bit of a snob and tends to enjoy the moments when gets the upper hand far too much. Kim also has a great time making the traditional buddy characters not the greatest of friends: Bae's fellow artist Hae-ryong (Oh Jung-se) is spying on them for material for his own contest entry, Da-rim's friend Gyeong-sun (Ryu Hyun-kyung) was the editor that fired Da-rim and makes a play for Bae, and Da-rim's twin brother Jong-su (Song Yoo-ha) whose sexual excesses are the inspiration for the comic's villain. They're a thoroughly mercenary bunch.

That makes the chemistry between Lee Seon-gyun and Choi Kang-hee doubly important. Fortunately, the pair do have a good vibe together. Choi is the one with the tricky role; while Lee can play Bae as being pushed to his wit's end by this crazy lady, Choi has to find what makes Da-rim not just a deluded fool. What we get is a woman surrounded by people who are far more sexually and professionally successful than she is who has to push back hard just to keep up (I suspect that this is more obvious to those who understand Korean; there's a line about who should be "talking down" to whom that doesn't really have an English equivalent). Both have to figure out how to be collaborators rather than competitors, and that's something they manage quite well.

It's a little bit unfortunate that, while it is relatively quietly observed that Da-rim's writing improves over the course of the story, Kim Jeong-hoon's seems to backslide a little. There's something wickedly barbed about how Da-rim is egotistical enough to not notice that she doesn't like the look of their sexpot assassin until it has her face and winds up basing her lover/nemesis on her own brother, but it doesn't come to much more than a familiar rom-com misunderstanding. Speaking of which, there's an absolutely maddening scene later in the movie Kim has Bae break some bad news in the most elliptical way possible instead of the plain talking that they are perfectly capable of by that point for the sole purpose of splitting them up. Also, it is almost unforgivable to have Jong-su show up in a panic about the twins' parents being in town for a visit without showing the audience what sort of mother and father (a) put him on the defensive and (b) produced this neurotic pair to begin with.

Still, a lot of good bits more than balance out the turn toward bad convention as the film is wrapping up: The animated sequences are particularly funny, and Hae-ryong's antics are as funny as he is inept. The finale has Kim remembering how to give romantic comedy conventions a bit of a twist. The question is, then, if he would have found a better way to get there with a collaborator of his own.

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originally posted: 07/23/11 23:55:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jeong-hoon Kim

Written by
  Jeong-hoon Kim

  Kang-hee Choi
  Seon-kyun Lee
  Hyun-kyung Ryu
  Yoo-ha Song
  Jung-se Oh

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