“Free yourself!” cries the oblivious father at the centre of Kim Dae-woong’s wrestling themed family comedy, Love+Sling (레슬러, Lesseulleo). In truth, this is wrestling of the emotional rather than the physical kind as the closeness of a father and son comes under pressure not only from advancing maturity but the unexpected intervention of the girl next door. Vicarious dreams, generational resentments, unusual sensitivity, unaddressed trauma, and self-imposed limitations all come into play when age and youth lock horns, each hoping to come out on top but eventually being knocked back to a healthier place of personal equality born of mutual understanding.
Cheerful widower Gui-bo (Yoo Hae-jin) and his son Sung-woong (Kim Min-jae) have an extremely close relationship seeing as it’s just been the two of them since Gui-bo’s wife passed away from illness when Sung-woong was small. By way of support, they are also extremely friendly with their upstairs neighbours whom they think of as extended family. In his youth, Gui-bo was a champion wrestler with Olympic dreams which he gave up to become a family man but has now passed on to Sung-woong whom he is training to become a national athlete. Meanwhile, Sung-woong is nursing a small crush on girl next door Ga-young (Lee Sung-kyung) but his plans of confessing his love after winning the big contest are dashed when she makes a big confession of her own. She’s long been carrying a torch for Gui-bo and wants Sung-woong to help her win him over.
Ga-young’s awkward confession sets off a series of uncomfortable reactions in Sung-woong. First of all he’s understandably shocked, jealous, and resentful yet also forced to realise that Ga-young’s having a crush on him is not really his father’s fault. The extremely close relationship they’d always enjoyed becomes strained for reasons that Gui-bo is unable to understand, believing that his son is just at a difficult age and under a lot of pressure thanks to his training. Gui-bo still thinks of Ga-young as the little girl from next door and is in no way romantically interested in her though when he finally learns of her intentions, he tries to do his best not to hurt her feelings, letting her down gently in the knowledge that this kind of misplaced love is just a part of growing up that she will someday likely be very embarrassed about.
Nevertheless, Sung-woong does not enjoy thinking of his own father as a romantic rival and is forced is to reassess the rest of their relationship in the face of this disturbing fact. Sung-woong can’t remember if he wrestles because he likes it, or he only did it to make his dad happy. Gui-bo insists he only encouraged his son to wrestle because he enjoyed it, but there is an unavoidable implication that he’s forced his own failed dreams onto the shoulders of his son who risks disappointing him if he is unable to achieve them. Sung-woong can’t help but resent the unfair parental expectations he’s lived under his all life, not least because they leave him uncertain, never really knowing if he has a dream of his own or has been prevented from forming one in having lived such a blinkered existence.
The burden of parental expectation is not one that can be easily shaken off. Middle-aged father Gui-bo is still under constant pressure from his own mother to remarry despite his frequent protestations. In a painful conversation after an argument with Sung-woong, Gui-bo turns to his mother to muse on the difficulties of raising a child only for her turn his words back on him in another veiled criticism of his refusal to conform to her vision of a successful future. Lamenting that his mother never listens, Gui-bo attempts to talk to his son but makes exactly the same mistake and gets his own words thrown back at him, finally realising he is no better and is incapable of allowing Sung-woong a safe space to voice his concerns without launching into a mini lecture of self-centred and unsolicited life advice.
Sung-woong’s increasing resentment threatens to tank not only his relationship with his father but also Ga-young’s with her family and the easiness that had existed between the two houses. Father and son had been all too close, locked in a mutually dependent cycle of filial responsibilities that threatened to prevent either of them ever moving forward. Like a wrestler trapped on the mat, each man has to free himself by accepting his own individual identity while allowing others to do the same. Only by a literal grappling can each man find the strength to release the other so that they might both regain the freedom to become the most authentic versions of themselves. A gentle, empathetic take on family mores and the pains of growing up no matter what age you are, Love+Sling finds space for the changing nature of a paternal bond which does not so much break as bend under the weight of mutual recognition.
Love+Sling was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)