My Dear Liar (受益人, Shen Ao, 2019)

My Dear Liar poster 1The Chinese censors board can sometimes be unpredictable, but the one thing that remains absolutely certain is that crime cannot pay in a contemporary mainland movie. That’s why so many recent films from China end with an incongruous piece of on screen text telling us how long everyone is going to jail for after being convicted of the crimes we just saw them commit, often with a supplementary paragraph expressing their remorse and hope to make it up to the people and the party. All of this merely makes the existence of unconventional, dark rom-com My Dear Liar (受益人, Shòurén) even more improbable than it already seemed seeing as the entire conceit is the murder of an innocent woman for financial gain.

Shen opens with childhood friends Zhong (Zhang Zixian) and Hai (Da Peng) rehearsing the story they will give to the police assuming their plan comes off. Zhong, an accountant, has been part of a large scale embezzlement scam which is currently under investigation. He needs to find a large amount of money quickly to cover up his crimes, getting together with Hai, a widowed single-father to a little boy with severe asthma, to commit small acts of minor extortion. When their random schemes stop paying the bills, Zhong makes a radical suggestion – insurance fraud. He proposes that Hai marry an internet web streaming star named “Foxy Fairy” (Liu Yan) so that he can start an affair and then drive over a bridge with her on the back of his motorcycle to collect the life insurance pay out. This whole plan hinges on the fact that Zhong knows Foxy Fairy can’t swim because she mentioned it on one of her live streams.

As plans go, it could use some work. Neither Zhong nor Hai seem to be particularly worried about the fact that they’re plotting to deceive and then murder a young woman solely for financial gain. Hai, who otherwise seems sweet and naive, is expected to live with and pretend to love a woman he is going to kill for money. One gets the impression he’s been doing Zhong’s bidding since they were kids without really thinking about it, but you’d expect him to at least ask a few more questions about being involved in an elaborate conspiracy to murder aside from clarifying that he won’t be expected to off her himself (except that he might, because Zhong’s plan isn’t as “watertight” as he first thought it to be).

Hai’s motivation for going along with all this, besides wanting to help the sociopathic Zhong, is his son’s health. Perhaps surprisingly, the film makes an implicit criticism of the declining air quality in the modern Chinese city, almost as a sort of metaphor for a moral decline coupled with a critique of increasing social inequality in suggesting that this is a problem which disproportionately affects the poor not least because they cannot afford to buy expensive machinery to improve it. Hai’s wife apparently died of a lung complaint, and his son Yoyo is in constant discomfort because living above the smoky internet cafe where Hai works irritates his asthma. In the park one day, Hai runs into a sales point for a new development, Diamond Bay, built out on the coast where they promise access to clean air. It sounds like a dodgy timeshare pyramid scheme, but it’s the only source of hope in Hai’s wretched life and so he sets his heart on getting enough money together for a luxury condo on the beach where Yoyo could breathe freely.

To get it, he sends his son away and makes an unconvincing attempt to play the part of “Big Ben” – one of China’s new brand of sleazy millionaires and a character apparently played by Zhong online for some time in order to romance the money hungry Foxy Fairy through her live stream channel. Why exactly Zhong picked her isn’t clear, save that he hopes to exploit her greed, justifying the scam with the rationale that she is also a “fraud” extorting money from her deluded fans under false pretences. Lacking the resources and an ill fit for the “Big Ben” mould, Hai struggles to win “Miaomiao’s”, to go by her “real” name, heart, but eventually begins to fall for her after seeing the woman underneath the makeup.

Once married, Miaomiao quickly slides into the conventional roles of wife and mother, even bonding with little Yoyo who makes an unscheduled reappearance mid-scam. Despite her rabidly consumerist online persona, it turns out that what Miaomiao wanted wasn’t riches but the warmth of a family home which is something she’s unexpectedly found living in the cramped apartment above the internet cafe. She remains completely clueless as to Hai’s true motives and desperately tries to make the marriage work, even going on TV to talk about what a good man her husband is.

One begins to wonder if Miaomiao is going to turn the tables on the scheming guys, but her big secret is just that she’s actually “nice” and wants to settle down for a conventional home life she assumed might have already passed her by. Hai hypocritically tells his son who keeps forging his signature on subpar report cards that the most important thing about being a man is “honesty”, but continues lying to Miaomiao right until the very end, getting cold feet only moments before it’s too late. Addressing some fairly subversive themes from the clean air issue to social inequality, institutionalised property fraud, corporate corruption, and organised embezzlement, My Dear Liar nevertheless refuses to engage with the deeply troubling nature of its central conceit even when indulging in the incongruous sweetness of its otherwise “wholesome” romance.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of CMC Pictures.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Contact (접속, Chang Yoon-hyun, 1997)

The Contact poster 1Even in 1997, it was supposedly much easier than ever before to make contact with pretty much anyone anywhere in the world, yet most of use chose not to. Twenty years later, perhaps not much has changed as we remain increasingly disconnected in an evermore connected world. Sometimes, however, as a radio host’s opening monologue reminds us, life has you take the long way round and it’s not until you hit a bump in the road that you start to think about what’s really important. The melancholy heroes of Chang Yoon-hyun’s The Contact (접속, Jeopsok) are each reeling from romantic disappointment, but brought together by a series of coincidences eventually find an outlet for their woes in the newfangled world of online chat.

Dong-hyeon (Han Suk-kyu) is the producer of a successful radio show but constantly in trouble with the suits for his uncommercial music choices. When someone anonymously sends in a battered copy of The Velvet Underground’s self titled album, he decides to switch up the order and play Pale Blue Eyes partly out of a sense of nostalgia and partly because he is hoping the woman he suspects may have sent it will be listening.

Meanwhile, across town, Soo-hyeon (Jeon Do-yeon) is sharing a moment with a cheerful young man, Ki-cheol (Choi Cheol-ho), who turns out not to be her boyfriend, but that of her roommate. To get away from the pain of seeing them cosied up together, she goes out for a drive and turns the radio on for company just as Dong-hyeon drops the needle on Pale Blue Eyes. So moved by the song that she only narrowly escapes a multi-car pileup, Soo-hyeon writes in to request it again which leads Dong-hyeon to wonder if she’s his old flame using an alias. Obviously, she isn’t, but excited to get an email from a radio show producer and not wanting to disappoint him she lies and says the request was for her friend who might be the one he’s looking for.

A pair of brokenhearted romantics, Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon are old souls who like rainy days and going to the movies in the afternoon but they’re also intensely online and attuned to the possibilities of indirect communication. Despite the “instant” nature of modern technology, the pair send intermittent emails, leave messages on answerphones, and fax each other, only sometimes replying in the moment via IRC but communicating on a much deeper level than they might have meeting face to face. Because they live in a city and have much more than they know in common, they unwittingly slip past each other with improbable frequency but would likely never meet, the act of making “contact” in person all but an impossibility.

The curiously analogue, nostalgia-laden, and above all physical device of the LP brings the pair together through a shared sense of loneliness born of frustrated love as they attempt to support each other through differing stages of romantic grief. While Dong-hyeon remains wilfully trapped in the past, mooning over an old flame while blaming himself for possibly coming between the woman he knew did not love him and the man she did, Soo-hyeon is in the thick of it struggling with her feelings for her roommate’s boyfriend. Calling himself “Happy End” because he’s read about them in books but doesn’t believe they exist in the “real” world, Dong-hyeon gives Soo-hyeon contradictory advice while making an ill-advised romantic overture to straightforward writer Eun-hee (Chu Sang-mi) who, unlike Dong-hyeon and Soo-hyeon, knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to state it directly. “Why can’t you be honest with your feelings?” she repeatedly asks Dong-hyeon, but predictably gets no reply.

Soo-hyeon meanwhile has given herself the rather depressing name of “female 2” online, apparently inspired by a series of walk-on parts in plays, but perhaps hinting at her categorisation of herself as an invisible face in the crowd while also ironically pointing at her awkward position as the third wheel in her friend’s relationship. Berated for his emotional diffidence by Eun-hee, Dong-hyeon nevertheless tells Soo-hyeon she’s better off to forget Ki-cheol if she can’t find the courage to tell him how she really feels but as good as his advice sounds it’s primed to backfire, potentially costing not just one but two friendships and seeing Ki-cheol disappear from her life forever. Braver than Dong-hyeon, she resolves to give it a go and whatever happens it will at least answer a question, putting an end to the continued suffering of being merely friends with the man she loves.

Perhaps out of a sense of guilt for having selfishly prioritised his own feelings with tragic consequences, Dong-hyeon has decided to keep them to himself, but if so it’s also made him casually cruel and infinitely insensitive. Giving up on his romantic dream, he contemplates running away and starting a new life abroad, while Soo-hyeon risks everything in pursuit of love. Not knowing how to connect with her in the offline world, Dong-hyeon once again resorts to the physical in order to make contact, waving a tiny document like a one-way passport to love in order prove his identity and romantic destination. Finally finding the strength to let go of lost love and take a chance on new ones, the pair shift their relationship from digital to analogue as they, ironically, resolve to leave the past behind for more connected future.


The Contact was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Kevin Ko, 2018)

Dude's Manual posterPersonas – university can be all about figuring them out but more often than not the key comes from an unexpected direction. An unexpected direction is where Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Tdān Gào) eventually takes us after kicking off with a scary crime thriller opening in which our hero gets himself temporally mixed up with a serial killer investigation only to earn himself the embarrassing nickname “Air Pump” when his “victim” is revealed to be a blow up doll. An unlikely meet cute brings him into the orbit of the most popular girl at school and subsequently into her plan to win back her reputation after getting it tarnished with his naffness at the expense of another shy and lonely student, but then again, isn’t everyone going to get what they wanted? Perhaps yes, perhaps, no.

He Xiaoyang (Dong Zijian) is in the last year of uni and is still single, never having had a girlfriend. An embarrassing incident with a blowup doll has earned him the nickname “Air Pump” around campus, while his roommates – “sexpert” Boshi (Yuan Fufu), and rich kid Ren Yi (Jin Jin), are doing a little better when it comes to the ladies, but neither of them is much help to the nerdy Xiaoyang whose main passion is the homemade flying machine he’s crafting in preparation for a competition. At an exclusive party Ren Yi gets the boys into, Xiaoyang’s life takes a dramatic shift when popular pretty girl Guan Xin (Elaine Zhong) throws up on his T-shirt and then becomes trapped with him in a bathroom from which they fail to escape before a budding paparazzo snaps them together in a compromising position. Guan Xin, mortified that anyone might think she hooked up with “Air Pump”, hatches a plan to get Xiaoyang a “real” girlfriend to clear her name and retrieve her top girl status.

As rom-com plots go it’s a fairly old fashioned one. Guan Xin decides to set Xiaoyang up with a shy concert pianist, Li Shushu (Jessie Li), who hardly ever comes to parties because of her intense social anxiety. She is therefore, Guan Xin rationalises, perhaps grateful for the interest and Guan Xin is really “helping” two people by manipulating them both into a possible relationship which might just have legs. Of course, while she’s doing that she and Xiaoyang can’t help but grow closer even if Guan Xin can’t quite bring herself to admit it.

The spanner in the works is that Xiaoyang, despite himself, is a pretty nice guy. He plays along with Guan Xin’s scheme but quickly goes off book, demonstrating genuine understanding and connection with the shy Shushu as he gently helps to bring her out of her shell. He is, however, also falling for Guan Xin but doubting that she will ever set aside her haughty attitude and accept her growing feelings for him.

The central irony is that Guan Xin can’t see all the ways in which she and Xiaoyang have already progressed through the standard rom-com gateways to love. Meanwhile, Xiaoyang’s friends are also enjoying a lesson in romance with both of their respective girlfriends as sex obsessed Boshi has to learn to be less superficial, and Ren Yi that money really doesn’t buy everything. It is hard to get past the unethical using of poor Shushu who becomes a sacrificial pawn in Guan Xin’s grand plan, but then again perhaps she learns a thing or two herself even if it’s just how to subvert someone else’s nefarious plan in order to engineer a happier out come for all.

Ko has a few laughs at the expense of the young men and women of modern China. Lives lived online have contributed to an already shame hungry culture and given birth to a fair few unscrupulous paparazzo gossip hounds who might be better sticking their cameras in more useful places, while also reinforcing traditional ideas about social hierarchy. Guan Xin, in many ways taking on the masculine Svengali role as she “fixes” the feminised ugly duckling of Xiaoyang, has some pretty cynical ideas about modern dating – using jealously as a weapon, trying to turn the “nice” Xiaoyang into a hot bad boy player that all the women will go crazy for, but then her plans do seem to work and Xiaoyang sees himself rising through the loser ranks to become an eligible campus catch. Like all good rom-coms, however, he doesn’t let himself be changed on the inside so much as rediscover what it is that makes him him, flying off into the sky on the wings of a romantic dream crafted with his own hands.


Dude’s Manual screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival on 14th July at 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)

Love Off the Cuff (春嬌救志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2017)

love off the cuff posterJimmy and Cherie, against all the odds, are still together and in a happy longterm relationship in the third addition to Pang Ho-cheung’s series of charming romantic comedies, Love off the Cuff (春嬌救志明). Following the dramatic declaration at the end of Love in the Buff, the pair have continued to grow into each other embracing each of their respective faults but after all this time Jimmy and Cherie have to make another decision – stay together forever or call it quits for good.

The major drama this time around occurs with the looming spectre of parenthood as Cherie’s long absent father and Jimmy’s “godmother” suddenly arrive to place undue strain on the couple’s relationship. These unexpected twin arrivals do their best to push Cherie’s buttons as she’s forced to re-examine her father’s part in her life (or lack of it) and how he may or may not be reflected in her choice of Jimmy, whilst Jimmy’s Canadian “godmother” makes a request of him in that he be the father of her child. Jimmy, a self confessed child himself, does not want anything to with this request but is too cowardly to hurt the feelings of a childhood friend and is hoping Cherie will do it for him. Cherie is wise to his game and doesn’t want to be trotted out as his old battle axe of a spouse but at 40 years of age children is one of the things she needs to make a decision on, another being whether she wants them with Jimmy.

Cherie’s father was an unhappy womaniser who eventually abandoned the family and has had little to do with any of them ever since. In his sudden return he brings great news! He’s getting married, to a woman much younger than Cherie. Building on the extreme insecurities and trust issues Cherie has displayed throughout the series, her faith in Jimmy crumbles especially after she intercepts some interestingly worded (yet totally innocent) text messages on his phone which turn out to relate to an unfortunate incident with their dog. Jimmy’s reliability continues to be one of his weaker elements as the behaviour he sees as pragmatic often strikes Cherie as self-centered or insensitive. Things come to a head during a disastrous getaway to Taipei in which the couple are caught in an earthquake. Cherie freezes and cowers by the door while Jimmy ties to guide her to safety but his efforts leave her feeling as if he will never value anything more than he does himself.

Moving away from the gentle whimsy of Love in a Puff, Cuff veers towards the surreal as the pair end up in ever stranger, yet familiar, adventures including a UFO spotting session which goes horribly wrong landing them with community service and accidental internet fame. A real life alien encounter becomes the catalyst for the couple’s eventual romantic destiny as does another of Jimmy’s grand gestures enlisting the efforts of Cherie’s father to help him win back his true love. Cherie’s troupe of loyal girlfriends even indulge in some top quality song and dance moves in an effort to cheer her up when it’s looking like she’s hit rock bottom though, improbably enough, it’s Yatterman who eventually saves the day.

Supporting cast is less disparate this time around relying heavily on Cherie’s dad and Jimmy’s godmother but Cherie’s friends get their fare share of screentime even if Jimmy’s seem to fade into the background. Cherie never seems to notice but one of her friends is in love with her and is not invested in her relationship with Jimmy, constantly trying to get her to come away on vacation to a nostalgic childhood destination, but most of the girls seem to be in the dump camp anyhow loyally making sure Cherie thinks as little about Jimmy as is possible lest she eventually go back to him.

Trolling the audience once again with the lengthiest of his horror movie openings (so long you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong screen), Pang begins as he means to go on, mixing whimsical everyday moments of hilarity with surreal set pieces. It’s clear both Jimmy and Cherie have grown throughout the series – no longer does Jimmy skip out on family dinners with Cherie’s mother and brother but patiently helps his (future?) mother-in-law figure out her smartphone as well as becoming something like her errant father’s wingman. Things wrap up in the predictable fashion but it does leave us primed for the inevitable sequel – Love up the Duff? Could be, it’s the next logical step after all.


Love off the Cuff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2012)

love in the buff poster2010’s Love in a Puff was a delightfully low-key, slow burn romance in which two lonely smokers found each other over a back ally rubbish drum and a series of aimless text-based and ambulatory conversations. Jimmy and Cherie were both so diffident, fearful, and emotionally restrained that their grand love affair ended on a positive if ambiguous note, promising only to continue in forward motion. Where is there to go in a sequel? The same place again, apparently. Or, more precisely, Beijing.

So, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) have found true love, moved in together and are very happy. Except, Jimmy is still Jimmy and Cherie is still Cherie and so there are problems. Things come to a head when Jimmy forgets a dinner arrangement with Cherie’s family, invites her to a beach party that turns out to be a work engagement, and then unwisely tries to win an argument by “reminding” her who plays the bills. Unsurprisingly, when Jimmy returns home Cherie has gone back to her mother’s. Jimmy takes a job in Beijing and starts dating an air hostess only for Cherie to also get an unexpected transfer to the mainland capital.

More or less following the pattern of the first film but with the roles of the protagonists reversed, Jimmy and Cherie find themselves falling back into the same old routine as they’re marooned in an unfamiliar city. Jimmy, still immature and self-centred, may have started an accidental relationship with a stewardess his friend intended to molest on an aeroplane, but it’s essentially superficial (at least from his side) and once again he finds himself texting Cherie whilst bored with his girlfriend’s elegant friend set. Cherie, not over Jimmy (much as she’d like to be) and perhaps regretting her over hasty grand gesture, begins a tentative relationship with a sensitive millionaire, Sam (Xu Zheng), whose only defects seem to be an old-fashioned idea of chivalry and the fact that he is extremely bald.

Despite Sam’s obvious goodness, Cherie can’t let Jimmy go and is ultimately disappointed to find that some of his childish strangeness has rubbed off on her – in fact, the very qualities which Sam finds attractive are ones she associates with Jimmy. Back to sneaking around, bickering, and exchanging cryptic text messages the pair are left to wonder if anything has really changed. The problems are exactly the same – neither one is willing to trust the other enough to make a real go of things. Cherie, still a little over sensitive about the (very small) age difference between herself and Jimmy as well as her ticking clock, resents being made to feel like the old ball and chain when Jimmy plays the coward in lying to her to go out drinking with friends. Jimmy still fears confrontation too much talk to Cherie in a straightforward way and so they’re locked in continuing cycles of passive aggressive drama.

Once again Jimmy and Cherie are the main draw though their friends take on a slightly larger role. Eunuch (Roy Szeto) remains Jimmy’s worst enabler as he urges him to make a series of bad decisions in making a life in the mainland capital, though there is a potential happy ending for Cherie’s “plain” friend Brenda (June Lam) whose lack of looks was the butt of such mean-spirited humour in the first film. Transposing the action to Beijing Pang takes another look at modern love with its marriage markets full of old women sitting in parks with signs selling the virtues of their sons not to mention the terrible blind dates but even if the actions of the central couple lean towards the sordid as they re-engage in accidental adultery, the romance is always gentle, innocent, and sincere. Jimmy and Cherie bonded in a puff, but now they have to learn to love each other “in the buff”, warts and all or call it quits.

Pang wisely drops the documentary conceit though maintains the laid-back aesthetic and whimsical music as the ballad of Jimmy and Cherie continues. The various cameo appearances threaten to derail the low-key style of the drama but once again Pang manages to capture something youthful, fresh, and heartfelt even if not moving very much beyond the original.


Original trailer (Cantonese with traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)