Crush And Blush (Misseu Hongdangmu)

Korea (2008) Dir. Lee Kyoung-Mi

“Everybody does something for no reason” is the sophistry behind the odd behaviour of the central character of this black comedy but she does have a reason – that old devil called “love”. Not that it justifies how she chooses to deal with this issue but rationale is in short supply when one is head over heels and insanely jealous.

Yang Mi-sook (Gong Hyo-jin) is a frumpy, unpopular Russian language teacher with a skin complex that makes her entire face go bright red when she blushes. She is in love with her former tutor now colleague Seo Jong-cheol (Lee Jong-hyuk), who is married to belly dance teacher Eun-Kyo (Pang Eun-Jin) with they have a daughter Jong-Hee (Seo Woo).

Jong-cheol is having an affair with the school’s other Russian language teacher Lee Yu-ri (Hwang Woo Seul Hye), and when Mi-sook is demoted and Yu-ri keeps her position, Mi-sook decides to take revenge. A gift falls into her lap when Mi-sook learns that Eun-Kyo wants a divorce Jong-cheol which Jong-Hee wants to stop happening. They form a partnership to kill both birds with one stone but typically, things have a habit of getting out of hand…

This highly lauded debut from Lee Kyoung-mi carries all the familiar trademarks of Korean comedy – amusing, too long for its own good, tends to get to serious towards the end – except it is VERY funny and with higher regularity than normal, due in part to the oddball cast of original creations and original set up, and is deliciously dark.

Without knowing the exact division of the ideas for the script, we can only surmise how much is Park Chan-Wook and how much is Lee, but the latter’s track record in the black comedy department does allow us to make an informed judgement on some of the more “near the knuckle” material representing his input. But it bears reminding that this is Lee’s film and not Park’s, his name being a handy endorsement for some film fans.

Opening with Mi-sook recalling her life as a perennial pariah, revealed to be told to her dermatologist and not a therapist (the deadpan humour of this set-up becomes a great running gag) does plenty to illustrate how dangerous an obsessive Mi-sook is. By rights, we shouldn’t afford her any sympathy since she is the one harbouring unrequited feelings for a clearly disinterested married man.

Despite her protestations that “something” happened between them a few years earlier in the back of a Beetle, Mi-sook simply can’t get Jong-cheol to acknowledge any connection between them, let alone reciprocate any feelings. Perhaps most shocking of all, the affair with Yu-ri is common knowledge within the Seo family hence Eun-Kyo wanting a divorce.

Hereafter, confusion reigns supreme as vital details are not being shared among the key players as well as the audience, providing further detriment to the already muddied perspectives that are about to be manipulated to possibly irretrievable lengths. This becomes a major theme of the story – acting without knowing all the facts, or more importantly, asking the right questions upfront.  

It is this attention to detail in the script that makes this so clever in how it carefully deconstructs the conventions it is lampooning. Lee makes a point of zeroing in on things that seem innocuous and makes them relevant; elsewhere little things like Jong-Hee and Mi-sook wearing plasters on their faces from cutting themselves for the remainder of the film is a detail most directors would quickly forget.

The variables involved increase exponentially throughout yet the only thing that seems to breed any success is the union of Mi-sook and Jong-Hee, an unusual dichotomy revealing an inverse in their respective maturity, yet their combined deviousness and dedication is quiet admirable. As cruel as their campaign is, some of the things they come up with are wickedly funny – the crude online chats being a highlight.

An underlying pathos is prevalent however, largely through Jong-Hee being unaware of Mi-sook’s feelings for her father which ostensibly puts Jong-Hee in the role of the pawn in a dangerous game of chess. The script is careful to ensure that the teen is not seen as being exploited by Mi-sook with a view to being dumped on the victim pile at the end of it; their rapport is genuine and both are going into this with their eyes wide open.  

Running just over 100 minutes, there is the almost obligatory flagging of pace around the hour mark endemic in Korean comedy, hitting the final resolution with thirty minutes still to go. In a rare achievement, the gags still come and often hit their mark, eschewing the typically heavy dramatic third act but the lustre shows clear signs of ebbing, and when the tears do come, they are treated with a sardonic twist.

One understated facet of the script is the female prominence, something that didn’t initially register with this writer. Being set in an all girls’ school should have been an obvious clue, but in retrospect, this is about a group of women reclaiming something of their lives with the catalyst being the actions of one man. To that end Jong-cheol is the least developed character of the main cast and something of a safe trope to boot.

Mi-sook on the other hand isn’t a regular trope and is something of an anti-hero suffering from real life delusions through an unfortunate skin complaint. Gong Hyo-jin is quite the workhorse in keeping up the energy of the character and her protean moods, supported by wonderful comic turns from Seo Woo and Hwang Woo Seul Hye.

From a darkly humorous standpoint Crush And Blush is a consistent and original Korean comedy with a sharp satirical bent that would benefit from a more concise approach to its time allotment and narrative strengths. A promising debut for Lee Kyoung-mi all the same, who waited far too long to follow this up with last year’s thriller The Truth Beneath.