Next Door (옆집사람, Yeom Ji-ho, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

How much do you know about what’s going on with your neighbours? Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min) thinks he knows quite a bit because they never seem to stop arguing and the walls in this building are surprisingly thin, but as it turns out he didn’t really know very much at all nor to be honest did he really care. Yeom Ji-ho’s graduate film Next Door (옆집사람, Yeop Jib Salam) is a tense mystery farce in which an aspiring detective tries to investigate his way out of trouble and somehow ends up coming out on top almost despite himself.

Chan-woo has been unsuccessfully studying for the police exam for the last five years and hopes that his run of miserable failure is about to come to an end, that is as long as he can get himself together to submit the application by 6pm the following day. One of the many problems with that is that Chan-woo has a cashflow problem and there’s not enough in his account to pay the fee so he has to ring a friend who agrees to lend him money but only if he comes out for a drink. Reluctantly agreeing, Chan-woo fails to correct his friends when they assume he’s already passed the test and become a policeman only to get blackout drunk and create some kind of disturbance before waking up in an unfamiliar environment next to what seems to be a corpse surrounded by blood. After a few moments of confusion, Chan-woo realises he must have crawled in next-door in a drunken stupor and returns to his own apartment but discovers that he’s left his phone behind which is inconvenient in itself but especially as it’s now evidence that he was present at a crime scene which won’t look good on his police application form. 

To be honest, Chan-woo is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it’s not until he’s been in the apartment, where he is trapped because the hallway is currently full of religious proselytisers, for some time that he remembers about fingerprints and DNA while deciding to do some investigating to figure out what might have been going on the previous evening. His friend’s messages suggest he has a history of becoming violent and aggressive while drunk and may have gotten into some kind of altercation all of which has him worried that he actually might have been involved in the corpse’s demise. 

Meanwhile all he ever did was complain about the noisy woman in 404 who was frequently heard arguing with a man. As an aspiring policeman perhaps he should have checked in on her to make sure she hadn’t become a victim of domestic violence rather than blaming his neighbours for his poor performance. To begin with, he assumes the body must be that of the woman’s boyfriend, but also makes a series of sexist assumptions while looking around the apartment and finding evidence that the person who lived there was a tech wiz immediately assuming that all the computer equipment must belong to the boyfriend. Similarly he decides the girl is probably an airhead after finding photos of her on the corpse’s phone because she is pretty and fashionable. When she finally turns up with bin bags and cleaning supplies, Hyun-min (Choi Hee-jin) first challenges Chan-woo on discovering him hiding in her closet but then changes her tune to appeal to Chan-woo’s vanity playing the helpless young woman looking to him for protection and in effect welding his sexism against him. 

His desire to play the hero may be behind his intention to become a police officer but then he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself. On discovering the body, we see him raid a piggy bank and pocket a note from the corpse’s wallet to solve his financial problems before thinking better of it and putting everything back where it belongs. He agrees to help Hyun-min deal with the body partly to protect her and partly to protect himself from his proximity to the crime all while trying to make sure he gets back to his own apartment to send the application form before the deadline. Even the landlady eventually offers him a discount on his rent in return for keeping quiet so the murder in the building won’t affect her business. “They were terrible people” he tells her when she repeats a rumour that Hyun-min got into a fight with a jealous boyfriend over money which might not be completely unfair even though he knows the rumour isn’t true and is not entirely blameless himself. A masterclass in blocking and production design, Yeom’s deliciously dark farce suggests it might be worth keeping a better eye on your neighbours in all senses of the term. 


Next Door screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애, Kim Han-gyeol, 2019)

Can you find love in a crazy world? According to Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애, Gajang Botong-ui Yeonae), yes and then again no. The Korean title translates as something like the most ordinary of romances, which, considering what we’re about to see, is in someways quite depressing. Achingly contemporary in its Ephron-esque air of sophistication, Crazy Romance nevertheless lays bare the costs to both men and women of living in a rabidly patriarchal, misogynistic society.

Our heroine, Sun-young (Gong Hyo-jin), has just joined a small advertising company in what many seem to feel is an unexpected step down in her career. At the awkward welcome drinks she’s asked a series of inappropriate, sexist questions, but her claims of not currently having a boyfriend are quickly disproved when a young man barges into the restaurant with flowers and abruptly proposes to her. It seems, Sun-young had attempted to break up with him that very morning, but he refused to listen and has now caused embarrassment at her job (which he expects her to quit anyway because they’ll be getting married). Meanwhile, Jae-hoon (Kim Rae-won) wasn’t really paying attention because he’s had too much to drink and is obsessively texting his ex who hasn’t replied in months. 

Jae-hoon’s alcoholism doesn’t seem to have affected his work, but has become a talking point around the office. The day after the party we see him wake up on the floor of his apartment surrounded by the detritus of drinking including, for some reason, several bags of corn on the cob, not to mention a cat which is apparently not his but might as well be now. Ever since his engagement ended, he’s been unable to move on, getting blackout drunk nearly every night and texting his ex who resolutely ignores him (not that you can blame her).

We can immediately see that there is not much difference in practical terms between Sun-young’s abusive ex Dong-hwa (Ji Il-joo) and Jae-hoon who is being positioned as the unfairly maligned nice guy, derided for his maudlin romanticism in being unable to forget his past love even though, as we alter discover, he broke off the engagement because she cheated on him while he was busy working hard for their future, neglecting their relationship as he fulfilled what he saw as his male responsibility to provide financial stability. Jae-hoon does, however, leave it at drunk texting and while privately resenting the fact she never replies, does not become dangerously obsessive, belligerent, or threatening as Dong-hwa later does in refusing to accept that Sun-young has ended their relationship. Nevertheless, witnessing their intense encounter in the car park and perhaps projecting, Jae-hoon tells Sun-young that he feels she’s been unfair to Dong-hwa who is after all “trying very hard” while implying that it’s romantic disappointment that has led to the apparent downgrade in her career prospects in the wake of derailed marriage plans. 

Jae-hoon’s embittered tone might suggest he’s mildly intimidated by Sun-young’s previously successful track record, but it is in a manner of speaking romantic disappointment which has done for her career in that Sun-young is now incredibly sick of having to deal with misogynistic workplace practices and persistent sexual harassment. Finding out the truth, Jae-hoon is outraged on her behalf but contributes to an ironic kind of victim blaming in berating her for not defending herself, as if she had the same right of recourse as he would have in her situation which of course she does not. As they bond in a shared sense of romantic disillusionment, the other team members start to turn against Sun-young, branding her a workplace hussy, while she in turn points out the hypocrisy of their interoffice gossip where everyone has a secret nickname from an employee everyone assumes is gay but is afraid to come out (he might have good reason, judging by his colleagues’ snide comments), to a female office worker’s decades-long unrequited love for their now married boss who is frequently derided for being thoroughly henpecked which is why he forces them into unnecessary company bonding sessions so he won’t have to go home and spend time with his family. 

The problem is that romance, or at least being vulnerable, is still embarrassing even in your 30s which is why everyone has to at least pretend to be drunk to pursue it. Both Jae-hoon and Sun-young are offered extremely problematic dating advice which effectively normalises abusive behaviour, childishly incapable of any kind of emotional honestly as they awkwardly spar with each other while their exes hover in the background. Sun-young tries to take Jae-hoon to task for his hypocrisy, pointing out that he thinks of himself as “better” than all the other useless men, but ultimately the film more or less agrees with him even if clear that he’s still a product of a misogynistic society and extremely self-centred while also genuinely nice as proved when we realise how he ended up with all that random corn. While he is maudlin and romantic, Sun-young is (understandably) cynical, but her spiky aggressiveness finds far less favour even if she is perhaps the one finally in charge of the direction of their relationship. Nevertheless, Crazy Romance cannot help but reinforce contemporary conservative social codes even as it critiques them, insisting that ordinary love is in itself crazy because the world is mad.


Crazy Romance is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)