Overlapping narratives-within-narratives abound in “Romance Joe,” some carefully set up while others are thrust to the fore without warning, but a puzzle-like resolution never arrives in South Korean helmer Lee Kwang-kuk’s fanciful first feature. Longtime assistant director to arthouse fave Hong Sang-soo, Lee shares his mentor’s predilection for making movies about moviemakers, seldom to their glorification, as well as his love of informal, often drunken encounters between characters. The pic’s difficult-to-follow intersecting storylines make theatrical distribution a longshot outside Asia, but its whirligig inventiveness and strong characterizations assure international fest play.
Four main stories crisscross throughout the film, most of them connected in some way with the title character and the subject of suicide, or at least attempted suicide (many players sport matching wrist-slit scars). The self-inflicted death of a famous actress, apparently distraught over rumors circulating about her, hovers over the proceedings, though the actress herself is never seen. Romance Joe (Kim Yeong-pil), an assistant director who worked closely with her, appears to have been the most profoundly affected, renouncing filmmaking and traveling to the site of their last production to end his own life.
But in the peculiar context of this film about filmmaking, every tiny action becomes a potential new scenario, and every cast member a potential new storyteller.
By far the most accomplished and engaging of these is Re-ji (Shin Dong-mi), a teahouse employee who delivers beverages and/or herself to guests at a nearby hotel. When director Lee (Jo Han-cheol) is left stranded at that hotel by his producer, forcing the helmer to write his next screenplay, Re-ji tempts him into paying for her evening by hooking him on the story of Romance Joe, a guest at the same hotel sometime earlier, whose aborted suicide she walked in on.
Within the framework of Re-ji’s remembrance of the incident, Romance Joe’s near-death experience flashes him back to his teen years, when he rescued fellow student Kim Cho-hui (Lee Chae-eun), who slit her wrists in the woods, the victim of a tattletale lover. Kim then figures in further accounts, including the story of her young son (Ryu Ui-hyeon), temporarily taken under wing by the omnipresent Re-ji.
Despite the overt playfulness with which he treats his whimsically enfolded narratives and his less-than-positive, Hong-like depictions of male film folk, helmer Lee invests his characters and their desultory adventures with an emotional resonance that never tips over into parody or melodrama. Shin in particular infuses Re-ji with a Paula Prentiss-like mix of provincial earthiness and sophisticated insight that proves a delight to watch. And David Lee, as a young Romance Joe, manages to wrest surprising pathos from his character’s youthful terror when faced with the mature self-possession of a girl his own age.
Visually, the helmer lacks Hong’s casual lyricism and profound sense of place. Nevertheless, the stop-and-go rhythms of his tangential plots create a fairy-tale space-time continuum all their own.