White Valentine (Hwaiteu ballenta-in)

Korea (1999) Dir. Yang Yun-Ho

It’s funny how life works – you spend all your time looking far and wide for something and it is right there under your nose. When this applies to love you have the makings of a story that would be a perfect fit for a romantic film – well, as romantic as a Korean indie flick can be anyway.

Schoolgirl Jeong-Min (Gianna Jun) used to write letters to soldiers but hated it as they never wrote back. To encourage responses, Jeong-min claimed she was a 25-year old school teacher which eventually led to a correspondence with Park Hyun-jun (Park Shin-yang), until they arranged to meet one day but Hyun-jun never showed up, thus ending their relationship.

Now a twenty years old and having left school to concentrate on being an artist, Jeong-min lives with her strict bookshop owner grandfather (Jeon Moo-song). One day, a white pigeon lands on Jeong-min’s window ledge with a romantic letter attached to its leg. Jeong-min decides to reply to it, receiving another letter the next day, beginning another relationship with a mystery pen pal, only this one is closer than expected.

The plot sounds to cheesy for Asian cinema unless it was set in the 1920’s but White Valentine is (for 1999) a modern day presentation but seemingly pre-internet/mobile phone, unless director Yang Yun-Ho and writer Lee Eun-kyeong was trying to hark back to the more wistful and innocent light romantic drama of yore. Not that this is a bad thing in this cynical age of ours.

Culturally, there are many things in this film that will baffle international audiences that aren’t explained, such as why Jeong-Min was writing letters to soldiers in the first place. We don’t know if this was a family, local or national tradition in Korea, or maybe just something she wanted to do off her own back. That she hated doing it, more so because of the lack of replies, does imply it was an obligation but it is never raised at all.

One thing about Jeong-min’s character that is apparent is she is a dreamer who perhaps lacks self-confidence. Her parents died when she was young and her grandfather never told her much about them – again, no mention if her late grandmother also remained quiet on the subject – and whilst she enjoys drawing, she lacks the motivation to push forward with it as a career, instead mopes around the bookshop.

Much later on, the old lady who runs the flower shop (Kim Young-Ok), who Jeong-min is trying to pair off with her grandfather, lets slip a significant piece of information about Jeong-min’s father. This revelation leads to a showdown that brings to the fore long held prejudices of the grandfather with a direct correlation to his attitude towards Jeong-min’s artistic ambitions, although this doesn’t explain the need for the revisionist history regarding his son.

But Jeong-min is also concerning herself with the white carrier pigeon and the lovelorn messages from the mystery sender, although it’s no mystery for the audience. Jeong-min’s new pen pal is the man who runs the bird shop, a gauche, bespectacled man in his late thirties also wandering aimlessly in life. When he is not rescuing injured pigeons in the park, he is drowning his sorrows for his late lover – the woman he really wants his message to reach.

In true ironic fashion, the pair cross paths on a daily basis, unaware of their previous epistolary exchanges, the frisson between them awkward but never negative. The reality is they are two lonely people, their written exchanges unwittingly bringing them together in a spiritual sense while the personal sense is as local acquaintances, with no obvious overlap between their personae.

Then there is Han-Suk (Yang Dong-Geun), smitten with Jeong-min, his adoration usually going unnoticed. Annoyingly, which may or may not be by design, Han-Suk is a double of the bird shop man, sharing the same hairstyle, glasses and clothes, with only Han-Suk’s fur allergy the one defining clue as to which potential suitor we are watching.

White Valentine ultimately reveals itself to be a tale about closure rather than a fated romance teased through it catalogue of near misses for the protagonists. There is a faint whiff of 1930’s Hollywood rom-com in its DNA – imagine Norma Shearer or Margaret Sullavan glowing as the pigeon arrives, whilst Franchot Tone or Leslie Howard ponders whether his declaration of love has reached the heavens.

Add an Eric Rohmer-esque vivid colour palette, a touch of Hong Sang-soo melancholy and Mike Leigh pathos and this is essentially what Yang Yun-Ho brings to this film. He is not a director I am familiar with and whilst these are the references I inferred in his style I couldn’t say if this typical of his work. This does imply however that Yang is a student of film, ably uniting these disparate influences to create something recognisably Korean.

However, it lacks that definitive spark to it. Like its characters, it meanders along for 88 minutes, possessing an amiable charm too light to be described as breezy, which make for an easy watch but the story hints of something a little more emotionally dynamic. It’s not a huge enough drawback to stop one enjoying the film and adds to the enigmatic ambiguity of the ending, but one can’t help feel it could have been more.  

If the film does stand out it will be as marking the debut of Gianna Jun. At 17 years-old and two years away from her star making turn in My Sassy Girl, Jun’s nascent star quality already shines through as the often-petulant dreamer Jeong-min, a role that requires some maturity to capture her callow romanticism.   

The curiosity of this being Gianna Jun’s first on screen outing is likely be the sole reason for some Korean film fans to give White Valentine a look, but hopefully they’ll also enjoy it as an undemanding, easy going, anti-conventional rom-com/drama.