R.I.P. Jang Jin-young
D: Kwon Chil-in
W: No Hye-yeong, Park Hun-Su
Uhm Jeong-hwa, Jang Jin-young
SINGLES is an incisive, progressive Korean comedy-drama that leaves many films in its overworked genre looking exactly like the disguised condoning of tradition they really are, but it's nothing like the U.S. television program, SEX AND THE CITY the U.S. DVD distributor has chosen to compare it to, despite the refreshingly liberal attitude taken by the filmmakers towards the sex lives of single people in a culture that pushes way too hard for traditional, culturally-protective dating and marriage.
One can only begin to imagine how entrenched thinkers in Korean society would react to this honest, observant, level-headed look at four late-twenty-somethings for whom life provides obstacles in both career and love that neither regressive-collective cultural thinking nor parents - who barely figure into the plot - can solve. Nan (Jang Jin-young), is a wide-eyed fashion industry drone busted down to Chili's manager by her sexist middle manager. The shift stings, but also points out realities she's not entirely uncomfortable with. Into her world comes Seo-hoon (Kim Ju-hyeok) a decent-fella securities trader who clearly wants to pursue a relationship despite her reservations.
Meanwhile, her best friend Dong Mi (Uhm Jeong-hwa), a web company employee out of work thanks to her own sexist superior, shares a flat with old pal Joon (Lee Beom-soo, in a 180 degree turn from his creepy role in OH! BROTHERS), who's as unsuccessful at removing himself from bad relationships as she is successful at bringing home a long string of bad boyfriends.
That both of these couples should end up together is a given. That the film provides no easy resolutions yet plenty of optimism for these truly modern Korean women is 2003's most pleasant K-cinema surprise: it allows the protagonists an honesty and resolve in deciding their own fates that many recent K-romances seem hell-bent on denying similar characters. Here, marriage to a handsome man and financial success - long the expectations of many young Korean women - are not depicted as an absolute guarantee of security and/or happiness, and turning 30 without being defined is hardly the end of the world, particularly for those who remain adaptable to the changes happening around them, rather than being pressured to fit a mold as their ancestors were. It should hardly surprise, then, that the film resonated so strongly with many young, independent Korean women who viewed it, some reportedly to the point of adopting Jang's distinctive and spunky bobbed hairstyle, as well as elements of her wardrobe!
Fine acting across the board, anchored by Jang's captivating, authentic performance, raises this far above the low-brow antics too often seen in these kinds of films (CRAZY FIRST LOVE immediately comes to mind). Almost needless to say, the production design and cinematography are sterling, with warm and inviting environments (including an absolutely gorgeous Seoul) serving as extensions of the optimism with which these characters face an uncertain, hopeful future. Must-see contemporary Korean cinema, and easily one against which all similar Korean romantic films should be measured.