Recent Korean cinema hasn’t been short on movies that push the sexual envelope, but “Sweet Sex & Love,” the first regular feature by former adult-movie director Bong man-dae, manages to come up with a few new wrinkles. A virtual two-hander centered on a couple whose relationship is defined purely through sex, film doesn’t plumb any great truths about the human condition, but sports committed perfs, focused direction and an admirably tight running time. Local B.O. this summer was soft, but canny festival platforming could propel this into modest offshore attention.
The last Korean sex-shocker to get international headlines was Jang Sun-woo’s overrated “Lies” (1999), more notable for its S&M scenes than any penetrating observations. “Sweet Sex” plays like a less arty, less self-regarding version of “Lies,” stripped of its physical abuse. Aside from the vast amount of coupling, it’s actually a conventional movie under the surface, beautifully shot, acted by attractive leads and playing like an East Asian meller shorn of its romantic elements. Genre influence is most noticeable in the weak ending.
Helmer Bong started in commercials before turning to erotic movies, making 15 in the three years prior to “Sweet Sex.” He’s lucky to have snared two good leads for his move into the mainstream, though overall, the pic is less trenchant on its theme of carnal attraction than other recent Korean titles like “Marriage Is a Crazy Thing” and “Ardor,” both of which went beyond the sheer mechanics of their subject.
Striking opening shows a woman removing her panties prior to a sesh with her current lover, while she muses in voiceover, “I’d grown bored with his penis swirling around inside me. Then I met him.” Cut to a Chinese restaurant where she, Shin-ah (Kim So-hyeong), is having an increasingly drunken meal with a guy, Seo Dong-gi (Kim Seong-su), who’s invited her out after accidentally spilling coffee over her. Growing sexual vibes during the formally shot dinner sequence lead to a fevered one-night stand in which both slake their considerable appetites.
Though she’s still seeing another man (Ju Woo), Shin-ah starts meeting Dong-gi for more coupling — notably in a humorous sequence in a public toilet — before eventually moving in together. He’s a hospital nurse, and she runs a small clothing business with a female colleague (Jeong Ju-yeong), but apart from a few scenes showing them at work, there’s almost no information about their characters beyond a shared sexual passion.
Script follows the normal arc of a relationship (attraction, experimentation, normalcy, boredom) but is paragraphed with sexually explicit captions rather than more romantic pointers. As small fissures open up between the two, they always manage to patch them over with some kind of sexual congress. But increasingly, it seems they’re almost too much alike.
Pic’s wafer-thin conceit is sustained entirely by the two lead perfs and Bong’s precise, good-looking direction. Kim Seong-su, a fashion model making his bigscreen bow, radiates a boyish charm that conceals a stubborn desire not to change his solo lifestyle, but it’s Kim So-hyeong, from whose p.o.v. the yarn is told, who drives the movie, as a mature woman who tries to escape enslavement to her sexual appetites. Thesp made a brief impression as a careerist ex-g.f. in Moh Ji-eun’s delightful romantic comedy, “A Perfect Match,” but here really blooms in her first lead role.
Chemistry between the two thesps is believable, with the sex scenes managing to be athletic and genuinely erotic while remaining visually softcore. Tech credits are pro at all levels.