How To Break Up With My Cat (Eo-tteoh-ge he-eo-jil-kka)

Korea (2016) Dir. David Cho

People who aren’t pet owners will never know how important that furry/feathered/scaly companion can be to a family unit or in a singleton’s life. Because we can’t communicate directly with our pets we don’t always know what they want beyond, food, exercise or to evacuate their bowels, yet once the bond is formed, maybe our pets are just as keen on our well-being as we are on theirs.

Na-bi (Seo Jun-Young) is a trainee sushi chef recently moved into a new apartment. His next-door neighbour is Ejung (Park Gyulee), a travel writer who lives with her cat Yamma. Since Yamma shows acceptance towards Na-bi that she doesn’t show to other men, happily invading his apartment and enjoying fish suppers with him.

When Ejung needs to go away for research purposes, she leaves Yamma in Na-bi’s care but what Ejung doesn’t know is that Na-bi can see the souls of cats, manifest in human form. Yamma’s soul has been taken over by Ejung’s late mother Ma Jang-Soon (Lee Young-Ran) who is looking for Mr. Right for her daughter so she can finally see her settle down.

This indie outing from David Cho (who is Korean despite the Hong Kong sounding name) is a thoughtful drama with a light fantasy bent that avoids being too sentimental with its central theme of relationships and emotional closure. In the grand scheme of things the cat angle is something of a gimmicky conduit for discussing the much deeper issue of preparing for the death of loved one.

Even with the air of phlegmatic whimsy that permeates through the opening scene of Na-bi unpacking his boxes and talking to Ma Jong-Soon unaware she is Yamma the cat, we are not prepared for the sobering tone that surfaces later on. Cho doesn’t allow things to descend into melancholy, preferring to remain philosophical about the gloomy subject of handling loss.

At first, Na-bi’s sushi making aspirations don’t appear to have much relevance aside from his cooking skills making him a catch for any woman, but humorously the attendant fishy aroma he picks up is supposedly what attracts the cats to him. It also helps make Na-bi more attractive to Ejung although Na-bi is glacially slow to pick up on these signs.

But at least Yamma approves, watching over this potential couple with interest, shooting Na-bi the odd prompting look here and there in both forms to get some comic mileage out of this curious premise. Ejung often being away gives Na-bi and Yamma plenty of opportunity to get to know each other and reach an understanding that currently cannot be shared between mother and daughter.

Having finally got their act together – which isn’t a spoiler since the relationship is crucial to the story, so no “Will they, won’t they?” time wasting here – Na-bi and Ejung have their first major crisis as a couple to face which provides the clever twist to the film’s title. No doubt How To Break Up With My Cat suggests a cat and owner must part of the betterment of a new relationship; instead Cho’s meaning is more serious.

Yamma is diagnosed with a cancerous tumour and is given a few months to live. Both Na-bi and Ejung are distraught at this news but their reactions are totally different. Because he can talk to Yamma, Na-bi is able to take a more pragmatic approach to this inevitability and help Yamma/Jong-Soon fulfil some wishes pertaining to her daughter; Ejung goes onto the internet and finds a quack claiming he can cure cancer.

Cho’s script is at its most evocative in the scenes with Na-bi and Jong-Soon, the latter a smiley middle-aged woman who even appears in a hat and coat for when they venture outside. It is not made explicit but the Far East’s predilection for Buddhist philosophy is the implied rationale for this mother to cat reincarnation, while Na-bi’s uncanny ability seems a case of positive karma for a good deed done as a child.

Because of this we forget that Jong-Soon is Yamma which makes the moments where Ejung hugs her pet when shown to the audience in her human form deeply poignant, the daughter blissfully unaware that the mother she yearns to see again is in fact in her arms. As sappy as this sounds, there is no schmaltz and Cho pitches this just right to evoke this sense of distant closeness as a heart-warming if elegiac motif.

Not everything hits the mark however, with too much time spent on the daily life of Ejung and her quirky co-workers and testy boss (Baek Do-Bin). Only Ejung’s best friend (Choi Hee-Seo), occasionally teased as a potential partner to Na-bi’s friend, serves some purpose, the rest are minor distractions. Na-bi’s colleagues and haughty boss fare a little better in the relevance stakes but aren’t fleshed out enough to feel substantial.

Former K-Pop idol Park Gyulee (KARA) does a decent job in her second film (following a few intermittent TV roles) as Ejung, but doesn’t quite emit the requisite warmth the role requires. She does create an enjoyable chemistry with the more experienced Seo Jun-Young who is very likeable, but the most fun and meaningful performance comes from Lee Young-Ran as Jong-Soon, with Yamma the cat a close second.

Cho sticks to his indie credentials by keeping the production modest, the most ambitious display being a quirky animation sequence. Changes between Jong-Soon and Yamma handled by cutaways and not CGI style morphing which must have been a temptation, but would have removed the very heart of the interaction scenes, not to mention undermined the message of unconditional affection.

Offering a nice twist on an age-old concept is the strongest facet driving How To Break Up With My Cat and whilst I wanted to like it more, I can still appreciate it as the amiable and forward-looking reverie it is. A lovely idea that is perhaps too meandering on occasion in its exploration.

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