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Keo-peul-jeu | Jeong Yong-Ki, 2011
Korea | 110 minutes
Couples, a glittering South Korean remake of Kenji Uchida’s 2005 Japanese hit (and NYAFF crowd-pleaser) A Stranger of Mine, starts with the most unhappy man in the universe: Yoo-Suk (Kim Joo-Hyuk, In Love and War). He’s mortgaged himself to the hilt buying a posh condominium for bride-to-be Na-Ri (Lee Si-Young), only for her to vanish with nothing but a text message promising to send for her belongings. He’s hired a private eye to track her down, but his tea shop (“We do not serve coffee.”) is going under, his house is a white elephant, and his heart can’t get over Nari. And he’s just been conned in an auto insurance scam and been caught up in a bank robbery where he is accused of sexually harassing a fellow hostage. Fortunately, pretty traffic cop Ae-Yeon (Lee Yoon-Ji) is on his side. But just when Yoo-Suk looks ready to start moving on with the right woman, Na-Ri swoops back into his life. But wait! Na-Ri’s on the run from Byung-Chan (Gong Hyung-Jin), an aging thug who just wants to stop cutting off people’s fingers and settle down. You think you know what’s coming next, but trust us: you have no idea.
Romance, action, adventure, noir—it’s a screwball orgy of tropes, types and timelines that can’t be tamed, only unleashed. With about a half-dozen potential couples in the film, multiple criss-crossing timelines and a resolutely non-linear narrative, it subverts conventional expectations at every turn. If William Burroughs’ cut-up technique was used to make a screwball Hollywood comedy in the 1930s, it might have turned out something like this. And while Lee Si-Young steals the film as Na-Ri, a guileless gold digger who would make the ladies of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes blush, Gong Hyung-Jin is truly touching as the gentle brute who doesn’t care that she’s a thief, as long as she’s his thief.
Life is bizarre, and Couples aims to show exactly how bizarre it can get. Sometimes diamonds turn out to be cubic zirconias and neither of you can pay the bill, but with a little luck, you just might find the only other left-handed person in Seoul who prefers tea to coffee. Couples is a gorgeous, delirious romcom the way only South Korea can do it.