Pointing initially in the direction of a road thriller about a vengeful husband flagging down the taxi driver who’s cuckolded him, “Driving With My Wife’s Lover” blossoms into a deeply felt study of loneliness and the need for love. Wrapped up in elegant visuals and with adroitly applied shots of absurdist humor, pic reps a sparkling debut for helmer/co-scripter Kim Tai-sik. Commercial prospects look promising in South Korea and Asia, and extended fest bookings should follow along with claims for arthouse exposure beyond the region.
An attention-grabber from the first frame, pic opens with bespectacled, balding stamp-maker Tae-han (Park Kwang-jung) carving the word “fuck” into a wooden block, dipping it in red ink and slamming it into a pile of papers. In the first of his occasional voice-over narrations, he announces: “I’m really sure my wife’s cheating on me,” and shuts up his shop in the small seaside town of Naksan. Arriving in Seoul with the sharp tools of his trade tucked into his belongings, the stage seems set for a violent confrontation between Tae-han and his wife’s lover, Joon-sik.
The first indication that things might not be heading along traditional revenge lines surfaces in Tae-han’s hotel room the night before he plans to make his move. Flubbing the lines he’s prepared for the big moment and hardly able to muster any menace in speech or body language, it’s clear this jilted hubby’s going to have a hard time transforming thoughts into action.
At least the first part of the plan goes according to script, with Tae-han successfully hailing Joon-sik’s cab and asking him to drive back to Naksan. As the long haul begins, there’s considerable tension surrounding if and when the wronged man will declare himself and take matters in hand. Script’s trump card is never losing sight of this key concern as it spins the steering wheel in unexpected and highly stimulating directions.
Foremost among these are conversations about the opposite sex. As Joon-sik freely talks about his success rate with women and claims “there’s no such thing as adultery, only love,” Tae-han finds himself drawn toward the man he intends to harm. Whether this amounts to Tae-han toying with his prey before the kill remains a tantalizing question right to the end.
As the curious bond develops between nominal enemies, pic gives the strong feeling just about anything could happen and delivers with marvelous comic pit stops. So well-developed is the off-center dynamic between the protags that it seems perfectly natural for hundreds of watermelons to suddenly roll down the road out of nowhere, or for the men to stop for skinny dipping and roadside badminton while awaiting car repairs.
Helmer Kim’s control over tonal variation is at its most impressive when Joon-sik’s taxi finally pulls into its destination. As Tae-han fumbles around attempting to catch wife Eun-soo (Kim Sung-mi) and her lover in the act, story has one last ace up its sleeve in the form of Joon-sik’s de-facto wife So-ok (Jo Eun-ji), with whom Tae-han spends meaningful time on a lightning return to Seoul.
With pitch-perfect perfs by the leading men, with a telling assist from Jo as the partner of a serial womanizer who also happens to be a really nice guy, pic emerges as an enlightening, good-humored commentary on the male condition and how loving and being loved are so critical to self-perception.
Jang Sun-bong’s crisp and tender lensing of faces and landscapes is the standout of a first-class production package. Costuming of Tae-han in drab, shapeless clothes and Joon-sik in colorful sharp cuts is spot-on, and the accordion and banjo-flavored score by Jeong Yong-jin is a jaunty, toe-tapping delight.