Like For Likes (Joa-haejo)

Korea (2016) Dir. Park Hyun-Jin

If romantic comedies ever had a handicap working against them it is that the genre is notoriously difficult to be completely original and, most importantly, unpredictable in. As much as I can’t stand the insipid Love Actually, Richard Curtis did at least try a few different set ups for his take on the theme and this Korean effort also strives to root its cast in less than conventional scenarios.

This ensemble outing revolves around three relationships, the major players of which incidentally overlap with one another in their professional and personal lives. First there is uptight single mum TV writer Jo Gyung-A (Lee Mi-Yeon) who wants to cast a former one night stand No Jin-Woo (Yoo Ah-In), a popular but arrogant actor recently returning from three year’s military service.

Gyung-A doesn’t want to ask Ah-In directly so her producer Jang Na-Yeon (Esom) makes the call for her, earning a reprimand. Fed up, Na-Yeon visits the Japanese restaurant of her friend Jung Sung-Chan (Kim Ju-Hyeok), where she meets his friend Lee Soo-Ho (Kang Ha-Neul), a songwriter who has lost his hearing, and they hit it off.

Meanwhile Sung-Chan is due to be married and leases an apartment from clumsy flight attendant Ham Joo-Ran (Choi Ji-Woo). However, Sung-Chan is dumped by his fiancée while Joo-Ran learns she was ripped off by the seller of her new home and now has nowhere to live. Sung-Chan flippantly offers to let Joo-Ran move in and to his horror, she accepts.

You can probably see where this is all going and I won’t say that you are wrong. The true genius is to make sure that the journey to predictable ending has enough fresh twists and substance to it that the audience is sufficiently invested in the characters to be accepting of an outcome they knew they were destined for five minutes into the film.  

Writer-director Park Hyun-Jin and her collaborator Yoo Young-A give this a good shot by avoiding the usual try hard wooing of the women by the male characters, a staple direction of the genre, while the women are strong willed, independent professionals with a reason to reject any advances. This may be a buy product of having a female writer but it makes for a refreshing change.

In the case of Gyung-A, her reasons for avoiding any advances from Jin-Woo are plenty – the fact he is much younger than her is one, whilst she is angry at him fleeing after their one night stand. Jin-Woo isn’t actually trying to win over Gyung-A however, he is more concerned with the paternity of her baby son. Gyung-A is adamant that Jin-Woo isn’t the father but is she telling the truth? And if not, why is she denying it?

The Sung-Chan – Joo-Ran odd couple scenario is everything you’d expect it to be, the latter constantly feeling her private space is being invaded by Sung-Chan, who is indeed prone to using her expensive French shower gel. Joo-Ran is arguably the least secure of the female leads due to being an older air hostess usurped by her younger, prettier and sycophantic colleagues.

After a failed attempt to impress her superior at a karaoke night, Sung-Chan has to take Joo-Ran to A&E where she falls for his doctor friend Kang Min-Ho (Ha Seok-Jin), and Sung-Chan uses his knowledge of social media to help Joo-Ran catch his attention. But of course, inside Sung-Chan wishes his relationship with Joo-Ran would evolve into something more than platonic.

Deaf songwriters are admittedly a rare breed – Beethoven comes to mind – while good looking single male deaf songwriters must be one in a million but that’s movies for you. Soo-Ho’s shyness and good manners make him the ideal catch for Na-Yeon although she isn’t aware of his impairment since Soo-Ho can lip read.

Little signs like Soo-Ho not speaking on the phone and only responding via text don’t register with Na-Yeon, so the secret remains safe, but still Soo-Ho can’t bring himself to tell Na-Yeon he’s deaf, thinking she leave him. This is another successful twist, having the male suffering from esteem issues and anxieties, yet this is also an obvious missed opportunity to explore society’s occasional ignorant view of such disabilities.

Then again, the rom-com has never been a conduit for imparting messages or sharing philosophies, which would explain why the likes of Bergman or Tarkovsky never made one. By design they are to keep us wrapped up in a cotton wool ball for a couple of hours while obscenely photogenic people endure heartache en route to true love while we lament the emptiness and futility of our own lives.

Breaking down the individual stories, two of them – Na-Yeon and Soo-Ho and Gyung-A and Jin-Woo – have the potential to be exported in a feature length outing of their own, such is the distance they stand from the genre conventions whereas the third arc is by the numbers fare. The characters in each instance are the most fascinating while the humour is designated mostly for the Sung-Chan/Joo-Ran saga.

Making up the cast are a group of popular names from Korean cinema and TV, and it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that many are playing to type, such is the ease they inhabit their assigned roles. They certainly make for an amiable bunch, outside of Gyung-A who is inherently difficult and Jin-Woo who is a vain twerp but we can see somewhere beneath these frosty exteriors a human heart beats.

Like For Likes is Park Hyun-Jin’s third film and much like the genre it inhabits, it is a competent but safe production that owes more to TV melodrama than film but never feels too big for the director, and she gets committed performances from her stars.

As far as a fluffy piece of undemanding entertainment goes this is a sheer saccharine Korean confection at its purest, putting a fresh, modern feminist spin on hackneyed wish fulfilment tropes for good measure.