Any précis of Romance Joe/Lo-maen-seu Joe is hard-pressed to claim absolute accuracy. There were walk-outs on writer-director Kwang-kuk Lee’s initial full feature, but those who had lost patience with the complexity and purposeful confusion also missed the point -- and the fun. For this is reality-check for “the world filled with an endless variety of stories [and] people so dependent on stories.”
Like Russian matroshyky nesting dolls-within-dolls, the nearly two- hour movie is stories-within-stories, linked by names, characters and events that relate to other, earlier ones. The whole hops around over eighteen to twenty-five years, only to conclude ironically that it is all tale-fabrication that, like a national identity-card number, does not exist except, maybe, if the individual believes that it does.
It is about film and filmmaking as the creation of, not a virtual but a parallel reality with a life of its own. Not limitations of obscenity-laced subtitled Korean but, rather, unfamiliarity with faces and names contributes, as in effect four similar actors go from one part to another in tantalizing the viewer’s grasp of who and what. Like third century geographic mythmaker Julius Solinus, the director and his creations could be nicknamed Polyhistor, “Teller of Varied Tales.”
Included in the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art joint New Directors/New Films, this film builds around two, possibly three, scenarist-directors’ writer’s-block despair to the point of abandonment, even suicide. Their emotional malaise in turn is linked to the recent suicide of actress Joo-hyun Woo, the consequence of malicious rumors – stories -- about her private life.
Soon forgotten or more accurately subsumed within other threads, a middle-aged couple hope for news of their errant son, in the meantime listening to the unfinished plot outline of a friend of his who is having trouble following up on his début A Good Guy success. The father falls asleep, though the wife is enthusiastic.
This dovetails into basically four interconnected other tales. The first is of blocked screenwriter-director Lee, deposited by an impatient producer at a nowhere roadside motel with the demand that he get to writing. A perky coffee bar-brothel waitress (Dong-mi Shin) arrives with his delivery order, is delighted to find that her client is film famous, and tells him the saga of director Romance Joe, long enough that the listener hires her for the night.
Remember that the relativity of the “real” is a theme in this film and, by implication, in film in general and in life. You are if you and others think you are.
The “real” Romance Joe (Young-pil Kim) is at a dead end after the suicide of the actress with whom he had been associated as first assistant director. Traveling to her town, he fails at ending his life as well, gets drunk, and is picked up by and sleeps with a perky waitress to whom he relates the story of his own teen love. As a virgin schoolboy, he saved the life of classmate Cho-hee (Chai-eun Lee), whom he loved but who slit her wrist when a seducer blabbed her shame. Probably pregnant, she convinces him to run away with her, but once in the city he loses nerve and sneaks away.
Following a brief encounter in which a mother confronts her daughter about leaving her seven-year-old behind, a seven-year-old boy (David Lee) shows up at a teahouse-brothel looking for the mother for whom he has only that address and a locket likeness. A perky waitress befriends him, because she has a son far away who does not know the nature of her business, and in a few days the boy goes back home.
Years later, after a night with a john, Cho-hee happens upon some drunken film students who cast her as a seated extra. The aspiring student director attracts her notice, and surely she recognizes the boy in the young man.
None of the principals stays in a relationship, but the past and its loves exert a fascination and a pull on them. Some at least, and maybe most if not all, of one’s past and present is such stuff as dreams are made of. Films, too.
(Released by M-Line Distribution; not rated by MPAA.)