This surprisingly entertaining offer from writer-director Hong Sang-soo (Nobody’s Daughter Hae-Won, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) is a little like watching a Woody Allen movie, without as much whining. Western mainstream audiences might find themselves a little torn between the gentle humour and the lack of normal narrative cues towards the end, but words like charming and quirky are definitely not just intellectual terms being bandied about at the critic’s level.
Sunhi (Jung Yu-Mi, A Bittersweet Life), a young film school graduate, has plans to study abroad. To have a chance however she needs a decent reference from her former professor (Kim Sang-Joong, My Boss My Hero) whose brutal and slightly uncomplimentary honesty is both a little funny (to us) and a little alarming (to Sunhi). Unsatisfied with the recommendation he writes for her, Sunhi talks him into giving her another, while the professor talks her into… some kind of romantic commitment? It’s a little hard to tell. Suffice to say the end result is that they agree to start dating, and to Sunhi’s credit, it doesn’t necessarily seem like she’s doing it just to get a better reference (although she does).
Meanwhile, Sunhi’s ex boyfriend Moon-soo (Lee Sun-Kyun, All About My Wife) and fellow graduate filmmaker is pining for her after their unexplained break-up. He takes his woes to older film graduate Jae-hak (Jung Jae-Young, The Quiet Family, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) and they end up in a cafe having a quite hilarious conversation about Sunhi, ambition, and life etcetera. It’s here that you start to get a feel for Hong’s subtle and humorous grasp on people, because it quite clearly reflects the conversation Moon-soo had with Sunhi earlier which led to all this, except Moon-soo is paraphrasing without once acknowledging or being aware of it. It’s like he believes the thoughts to be his own, and this gives the impression that Sunhi wasn’t the first person to have voiced them but that the conversation or variations thereof has been cycling through their collective circle well before the film started.
This impression only intensifies as the story continues, until a chance meeting between Sunhi and Jae-hak lead to another romantic entanglement and Sunhi is suddenly romantically involved with all three men. It’s like some kind of kooky Holy Trinity of dating — she’s trying to break up with Moon-soo, has a seemingly innocent relationship with Professor Choi, and is somewhat more carnal with Jae-hak – and it’s all a little bemusing to realise that you’re the only one wondering how the hell she managed it. Sunhi herself doesn’t seem to notice or mind, and it almost makes you wonder whether she’s doing it deliberately — over-committing so as not to actually have to commit at all — or perhaps just getting three different things she needs from three different people, although you never see any evidence of that.
What you do see is people having basically the same conversation over and over without realising it and what you find is that it somehow manages to be funny as opposed to frustrating, ergo the Woody Allen comparisons. Hong is clearly making some scathingly ironic observations about filmmakers and filmmaking, but he also manages to package his dissatisfactions about the profession and the people in it up into a reasonably entertaining film where the girl, normally the passive focus of three competing males, is in fact the only one who really has any control or independence in the situation.
While the three men are busy dwelling on what she is and isn’t and who is the best for her, Sunhi is more or less doing her own thing and, whatever that is, it seems to have no real bearing on the men. Her suitors obviously can’t handle her because they don’t ‘know’ her, not really, and neither do we. She, as the song goes, moves in mysterious ways, which is where the charming part of charming and quirky comes into it. Again, the reason why it’s not uncommon for Hong to be compared to Allen. “Women are better than men”, Jae-haek tells a miserable Moon-soo early on, and given the overall tone of this film, it’s impossible not to think Hong means that quite sincerely and without malice.