Through her first three features in which she also played the lead, Jeong Ga-young had established herself as a provocative indie voice casting herself as an often unsympathetic if transgressively frank heroine contending with the vagaries of the modern society. Nothing Serious (연애 빠진 로맨스, Yeonae Bbajin Romance), by contrast, marks her debut as a commercial film director and perhaps softens some of her harsher edges but nevertheless maintains her characteristic saltiness and often witty dialogue in what is otherwise closer to Nora Ephron than Hong Sang-soo.
Though played by Jeon Jong-seo rather than the director herself, 29-year-old Ja-young is a classic Jeong heroine transgressively frank in terms of her sexuality and finding herself in something of a tailspin as she approaches her 30th birthday as a single young woman drowning in debt with neither career nor relationship success to boast of. Meanwhile across town nerdy magazine staff writer Woo-ri (Son Suk-ku) finds himself having to write almost all of the magazine himself in part he suspects as punishment for having helped a friend leave to start up their own online publication. His particular problem is that his boss has asked him to take over his friend’s sex column which is really not his thing especially as he’s in an on again off again non-relationship with colleague Yeon-hee (Lim Sun-woo) who has just informed him she’s getting engaged to her old boyfriend.
Inevitably the pair end up meeting through dating app Love Bridge to begin with just for a no strings New Year one night stand only to inconveniently realise they quite like each. Even so, their personal issues continue to overshadow the relationship, those being Ja-young’s hurt and anxiety on hearing that an old boyfriend who treated her badly and broke her heart is getting married, and the fact Woori signed up to Love Bridge mainly to find inspiration for his column which becomes an unexpected hit with readers who prefer the slow-burn tease of their romance to the X-rated content of Woo-ri’s predecessor.
While not really “dating” the couple continue to share their relationship woes with each other, Ja-young continually fed up with her attempts to meet “normal” men who don’t invite their mother on dates, turn out to be married, or are just plain odd. Her previous boyfriend branded her an insanely jealous “alcoholic nymphomaniac” while she simply tells it like it is as a sexually liberated young woman who refuses to feel ashamed for feeling desire but is also in her own way lonely and looking for companionship as perhaps is Woo-ri while conflicted in his betrayal of her even if he is careful not to use any identifying details in his column.
Along with their romantic woes, the pair also share a sense of hopelessness about the future, Woo-ri disappointed in himself for his lack of success as a serious writer and Ja-young staking her hopes on a career in podcasting after being forced to leave a job at a radio station because of the awkwardness between herself and a colleague she’d previously dated. Interviewing her grandmother and a series of other women she fears were denied the right to become the protagonist of their own lives, always someone’s wife or mother looking after children or in-laws, she wonders if she’s managed it herself or if things are really as different now as she had thought them to be while she continues to struggle drowning in debt and loneliness with very little hope for the future.
Jeong’s prognosis is, however, a little more hopeful than in her previous films Ja-young and Woo-ri each flawed but basically good falling in love despite themselves only to see their connection undermined by its superficial inauthenticity. If nowhere near as caustic, she retains her sense of playfulness, even throwing in a reference to her first film Bitch on the Beach not to mention the tiny animated heads emerging from the pair’s phones, through sophisticated dialogue instantly capturing a sense of the everyday life of the average 20-something in the contemporary society longing to overcome their sense of cynicism and believe in a genuine romantic connection. Strangely charming in its breeziness, Jeong’s commercial debut loses none of her wit but gains a little in warmth as these crazy kids learn to put their anxieties aside and give love a chance even if it turns out to be nothing serious after all.
Nothing Serious screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.
International trailer (English subtitles)