Loan Star

Steven Erickson on My Dear Enemy

Lee Yoon-ki, My Dear Enemy, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes.

SOUTH KOREAN DIRECTOR Hong Sang-soo’s films haven’t yet attained steady American distribution, but they have had an impact on younger Korean filmmakers. Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008) is perhaps the first prominent Hong-influenced film to reach stateside screens, and it actually shows more of a flair for light comedy than Hong himself achieved in his latest film, Like You Know It All (2009).

Lee has a gift for visual style, but he wears this virtuosity casually. The Steadicam Cinemascope shots that kick off My Dear Enemy make clear that the film will be something beyond the humdrum or prosaic. By contrast, the narrative is more sedate than Lee’s direction—in fact, it sometimes suggests a sitcom pilot. After being met at the racetrack by his ex-girlfriend Hee-su (Jeon De-yeon), Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo) looks up other former lovers for loans to pay back a twenty-six-hundred-dollar debt to her. The entire film takes place over the course of a day.

My Dear Enemy often threatens to turn into a conventional romantic comedy, but it ends up flirting with such bromides rather than indulging them. The jazzy score suggests Woody Allen, but the pissy tone brings to mind Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985)—as well as Larry David’s television series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–). The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic: Byeong-woon is an overgrown adolescent who hatches big plans that will never come to pass, while Hee-su sublimates her feelings beneath an icy facade. The two lead actors generate something akin to antichemistry. If there ever existed sexual desire (or even tension) between the two, that day has long passed. While Lee borrows from Hong and other Asian filmmakers (particularly Hou Hsiao-hsien), his sensibility also stems from an openness to more mainstream inspirations. My Dear Enemy successfully dodges the tropes of much “festival cinema,” which now threaten to become clichés.

My Dear Enemy plays at the Museum of Modern Art in New York November 20–27. For more details, click here.