Simple and fresh despite its aura of nostalgia and innocence, “Architecture 101” tenderly reveals concealed feelings between two Seoul college students as they reconnect 17 years later. Helmer-scribe Lee Yong-zoo overhauls the timeworn theme of unrequited first love by applying his architectural training to deliver form, artistic flourishes and production values in just the right proportions. Rekindling memories of early Korean wave romances like “Ditto” or “The Classic,” the pic drew stellar B.O., temporarily becoming South Korea’s highest-grossing meller. Critical word of mouth has laid a strong foundation for overseas sales, especially in Asia.
Seoul architect Lee Seung-min (Uhm Tae-woong) is commissioned to rebuild an old house on Jeju Island. At the meeting with his client, a well-heeled doctor, the doctor’s head-turning wife, Yang Seo-yeun (Han Ga-in), reminds him that they went to the same university. Flashbacks depict campus days in Seoul’s Jeongneung district, where music major Seo-yeun (Bae Su-ji) and Seung-min (Lee Je-hoon) attend classes together, and become familiar with each other while sharing the same bus to their separate lodgings north of the Han River.
Egged on by Baffle (Cho Jong-suk), his buddy and self-professed ladies’ man, Seung-min rehearses lines to ask Seo-yeun out. Yet, when Jae-wook (Yu Yeon-seok), the richest, hottest boy on campus, flirts with her, and she seems flattered, Seung-min is crushed. Back in the present, Seung-min finds himself again falling for Seo-yeun, even though he’s engaged to co-worker Eun-chae (Go Jun-hee), and set to move to America with her in a matter of months. Seo-yeun knows this, too, but basks in his attention.
The pic’s romantic spell works best when re-creating the past, replete with ’90s signposts like CD players, Pentium processors and Guess T-shirts that underscore the passage of time and how, inevitably, people move on. With gently undulating rhythm, it captures that sweetly awkward phase when two people are closer than friends yet not quite lovers. The narrative seamlessly slides up and down emotional registers, as when Seung-min’s goofy bantering with Baffle turns unexpectedly into a heart-rending confession of vulnerability. Girl-band singer Bae plays the serene and soft-spoken younger Seo-yeun, a piano student, without a trace of affectation, sharing nonverbal affinity with Lee’s shy and gawky boy. Lee, in particular, reveals a softer side that starkly contrasts with his hot-blooded roles in male-oriented works “Bleak Night” and “The Front Line.”
In comparison, scenes set in the present are more talky and less emotionally satisfying. The thirtysomethings also are not as endearing as their younger selves, especially Han’s Seo-yeun, who is high maintenance and given to drunken fits. The denouement ends on a wistful note that leaves important things unsaid, yet surely unforgotten.
Although the film invokes architecture as its motif, it’s real interest is not building or construction, but the attachment people develop for places and each other. Seung-min’s professor tells students to walk around the city and get to understand their neighbor, because “that’s where architecture starts.” Helmer Lee brings to life the humble, down-to-earth ambience of Jeongneung, so that when Seung-min and Seo-yeun drift apart after she rents a new apartment South of the River, the class ramifications are as potent and poignant as leaving New Jersey for Manhattan. Seen in this light, Seung-min’s final decision about what to do with Seo-yeun’s house symbolizes the pic’s appeal to cherish the past.
Tech credits are superb, especially lensing by Cho Sang-yun, who not only frames every shot in radiant light and evocative colors, but pays attention to the smallest background details. The sparing use of music and a ’90s K-pop song discreetly enhances the pic’s mood.