Petty Romance, the next film being shown in Korean Cultural Service’s free biweekly movie series, took me by surprise after the series' charming yet chaste previous entry, My Girlfriend is an Agent. It’s quite a bawdy affair, with far more upfront sexual content than past Korean films that have been promoted as having such (Dasepo Naughty Girls is one, and from the psychological drama department, The Housemaid might even be given cause to blush).
With one foot firmly planted in the world of manga publishing, it tells the timeworn story of a guy and girl meeting up and going through the awkward motions of forging a romantic relationship. Although commonly tread ground, there is added intrigue thanks to the humorous comic book storyline and a truly memorable and not at all stereotypically rendered female lead.
The couple meets when confident Jeong-bae, an acclaimed manga artist is enticed by an international eroticcomic competition, which promises the winner a hefty sum of reward money and a lucrative publishing deal. This leads him to recruit a story writer, a position that equally headstrong (though in very different ways) Da-rim steamrolls her way into with much bravado and several embellishments on some less than stellar experience. Her stint as a sex columnist for a women’s magazine would appear to be her greatest asset, yet she leaves this detail out at the interview. She has no problem, however, blaming the shortsightedness of the entire Korean film industry for the lack of development on a progressive relationship story that she has supposedly written.
From the moment the alliance forms, their personality clashes take over the show. Jeong-bae sees himself as the visionary in charge, looking for ideas that will fuel his revered craft. He is refined in his tastes and has a no-nonsense approach to his work. Da-rim is far from being a workaholic. She seems content to breeze by life, living in her rather resentful brother’s upscale apartment, and resistant to anything resembling a steady job. While he attempts to maintain a razorlike focus on the comic, she is more concerned with uncovering any romantic intentions Jeong-bae may have towards her.
They also have conflicting attitudes towards manga: Jeong-bae wants to create a story that is meaningful and not cliche. Da-rim views his aspirations as lofty but hollow, equating them to the empty onion peels remaining at the bottom of a jia jiang men noodle dish. She sees comics as a place to be funny and, of course, sexually provocative.
Physical attraction between the two vies with the personality clashes and opposing artistic visions. Rest assured, the pair do not make it easy for a connection to be formed. Or for that matter, a championship-winning erotic comic to be created.
Although supporting characters are for the most part bland, playing up familiar stereotypes that stir up dust clouds along the main characters’ already muddled path, it doesn’t matter much. The main attraction really is the central couple, in particular actress Kang-hee Choi’s performance as Da-rim. She manages to be charming while also capturing an atypical combination of uncouth and witless. She is frank about her interest in sex, although the vast experiences she speaks of may or may not be all that it is cracked up to be.
The manga angle serves the story in a few ways. Several genre-inspired animations occur during the movie, depicting characters’ desires and fantastical self-perceptions. They also allow the film to push the boundaries of raciness beyond what could be carried out acceptably with actors and actresses. One sequence is a particularly funny riff on the action movie Wanted. Another neat trick of the movie is that amidst all of the explicit activity, both animated and either talked about or going on between other characters, Jeong-bae and Da-rim’s passion for each other manages to go largely unfulfilled, even through some awkward encounters that bring them extremely close. It is a story as much, if not more, about frustration as gratification.
For a rare look at the more adult side of Korean romantic comedies, strongly consider turning yourself over to Petty Romance. Be forewarned, though, that if you are only interested in a naughty nibble, you may get more than you hoped for. Over the course of its two hours, it’s more like a banquet with all the trimmings -- Expect the requisite changes in mood from frivolous to serious, with day trips, misunderstandings, jealousy, awkwardly cute romantic interludes, and unguarded admissions of true feelings along the way.
Petty Romance screens for free on Tuesday, April 10, at 7:00 PM, at Tribeca Cinemas. See the Korean Cultural Service website for details.
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