Sa-kwa (aka Sorry Apple)

Korea (2005) Dir. Kang Yi-Kwan

There is a cute aphorism, which also became a hit song for the legendary Stephen Stills, that reads “If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with”. It’s a bit cheeky since it appears to condone infidelity but it makes sense at the same time. But, like most things, it is easier said than done.

Hyun-jung (Moon So-ri) has been with her boyfriend Min-seok (Lee Sun-kyun) for seven years, with her mother constantly pressurising her to get married, so it is a huge shock when Min-Seok summarily breaks up with Hyun-jung. Naturally distraught, Hyun-jung is on the verge of emotional collapse when she recalls interest shown in her by shy office worker Sang-hoon (Kim Tae-Woo) and agrees to date him.

After a disastrous first date which ends with Hyun-jung explicitly saying they was no connection between them, they somehow continue to see each other and eventually get married. While Hyun-jung is pregnant, Sang-hoon’s work forces him to go away for a few months, at the same time Min-soek returns and tells Hyun-jung that he made a huge mistake letting her go.

Relationship dramas like Sa-kwa (meaning “apple” or “apology”, hence the alternate title Sorry Apple), the debut from Kang Yi-Kwan make me glad I am single, painting an unhappy picture of what being a couple is like. It’s not necessarily grim and does indulge the odd familiar convention, but is a stark and honest portrayal of romance gone wrong.

Kang’s script does something that is rare in such an instance by putting the onus on the breakdowns of the relationships on all involved. With no singular victim or culprit, the blame game is muddied and practically redundant, leaving the audience to simply observe the dissolution of the couplings with no direct emotional investment.

It also makes the cast a frustrating trio to get a handle on since none of them are even aware of why they behave the way they do. We can see it, and they can see it but the core issues remain as much a mystery to them as it does to us, but Kang is keen to explore the external influences which play a part in the everyday hassles conspiring to undo Cupid’s hard work.

An early target is the continual nagging by Hyun-jung’s mother to tie the knot, a regular problem across Asia where society tends to frown on woman over a certain age still not being married. It’s an interesting juxtaposition for a continent full of countries often at the forefront of modern technological advances to be so draconian on matters most of other countries have become more liberal about, and while it is not a point Kang makes directly, he does expose its dated futility.

Hyun-jung isn’t bothered and is happy with the way things are with Min-seok and even to us, the break-up comes out of nowhere. This puts Min-seok in the de facto role of villain, and even though Hyun-jung shows few signs of some caprice and need for attention in her actions, it is nothing that appears drastic enough to warrant ending the relationship.

Sang-hoon actually approaches Hyun-jung for a date before the break-up, only to be given the friendly “I’m taken” brush off but as they work in the same office building, further meetings are inevitable. Personality wise the pair don’t seem all that well suited and this leaves them prone to misunderstandings and tense moments so their eventual union is more baffling.

There is quite a lot of humour in the film’s first hour to accompany the awkwardness of this pairing, buttressed by Hyun-jung’s family, made up of her pragmatic but henpecked father, idle younger sister and of course her pitbull mother. Amazingly, Kwan fits in a flatulence gag into this scenario that actually works without being needlessly coarse, otherwise this is your usual comedy of manners.

After the wedding, Hyun-jung admits that she is beginning to love her husband but from the offset, the clash in interests rears its ugly head and while the marriage doesn’t go off the rails right away, it doesn’t exactly recover any quicker either. The problem, as ever, is a lack of communication with neither party being able to express what they want for themselves and from each other.

Min-Seok’s return is not an issue at first, not until much later on, after a lie from Sang-hoon causes the first major irreparable tear in the fabric of the marriage. The script again maintains the “six of one, half a dozen of the other” theme, underlining the tragedy of their problems rather than exacerbate it, playing the Min-seok card in a surprisingly different way.

Even with such prevalent themes as religion, traditional family and social ideologies, peer pressure and the like, Kwan doesn’t use them to judge or to weigh the drama down by putting any focus on them as intrinsic hiccups to the marriage. They are there to illustrate the differences present in many people’s lives, and this eschewing of using them to define characters and create conflict is certainly refreshing.

With the script holding back on the characters, the actors are left to fill in the blanks. Moon So-ri delivers another impeccably nuanced and natural performance as Hyun-jung, saying so much more through her body language or a simple look that reams of dialogue could. Her male counterparts Lee Sun-kyun and Kim Tae-Woo are a little weaker in that respect, the latter afforded more time to establish Sang-hoo’s complexities.

I’ve not seen any of Kwan’s subsequent films (all three of them) so I don’t know how much he has progressed or changed since this debut. There is an air of “Indie” about Sa-kwa with the handheld camera, scant music soundtrack and modest production values, but it is an assured debut, offering a different take on relationships in 21st century Korea.