Good locations and a fizzy, what-the-hell attitude save this messy mix of genre parody, class consciousness and arty intentions from withering. Pic could find a grudging home in some commercially minded Asian cinemas, but won’t smell sweet enough for offshore arthouse picking.
Set in working-class Seoul in the months leading up to the 1988 Olympics, pic narrows in on a small group of misfits, drawn together at an all-night comic-book shop, which doubles as a super-cheap crash pad. The madam of this open-house”library” is a lovely, introspective woman (Choi Myung-Kil) who handles the roughest elements with relaxed ease. She does, however, become somewhat unnerved by the arrival of handsome gangster Dongpal (Choi Jae-Sung), on the lam from a frame-up charge.
Unfortunately, Dongpal pursues Madam’s attentions by raping her in a troubling, if ultimately well-handled scene. The woman responds by refusing to acknowledge hispresence, sending him into an existential tailspin that has him following her day and night. He harasses her customers, including her brother (Cha Gwang-Soo), who’s a labor leader in hiding, and a young writer (Lee Jee-Hyung) wanting to learn about life. Eventually, though, the toughie begins to fit into their odd little family.
It’s an admittedly quirky kind of love story, one that Jean Renoir could have tossed off handily in the politically charged 1930s (or maybe Juzo Itami today, albeit with a more farcical edge). When first-time helmer Kim Hong-Joon tries to throw political commentary into the pulpy romance the attempt is clumsy and too late in coming. Similarly, outright chopsocky sequences lack the necessary flair to justify their rhythm-breaking intrusions — especially when some fights crack with cartoon abandon and others thud realistically.
The problem is one of over-ambition leavened with a surplus of good taste. Pic is neither rigorous nor cheesy enough to satisfy the various audiences it’s gunning for, although good perfs, effective lensing and a snappy pop score make it easy to sit through.