If further proof were needed after her eye-opening turn as the sexy, duplicitous wife in “Happy End,” South Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon proves her star caliber in the very different “I Wish I Had a Wife,” a decidedly offbeat, romantic comedy-drama that follows a shy bank cashier and a fey, slightly spacey teacher. Though Park Heung-shik’s first feature demands a certain acquaintance with, and tolerance of, Korean meller conventions, the film’s assured tone and likable perfs by Jeon and actor Seol Kyeong-gyu make this worthy of play at broad-minded fests and in film weeks, with cable sales down the line.
The movie reps an interesting pairing between Jeon, who’s become one of the hottest (and choosiest) actresses in Korean cinema on the strength of her personality rather than looks, and Seol, who gained major coverage from his lead role in “Peppermint Candy.” Released in January, “Wife” performed very solidly but was not a runaway hit, no doubt due to the fact that its two-hour running time goes for a slow burn rather than playing to the gallery.
There is, in fact, almost no plot in the conventional sense. Instead, pic eases the viewer into its two protagonists’ quirks and emotional hang-ups until, by the end, one just aches for the two to work it out. Jeon plays Jung Won-ju, initially in specs and ponytail, who’s a dreamer; Seol plays Kim Bong-soo, a bank cashier who’s looking for a wife but mistakes an on-off relationship with an old school friend (sad and sexy Jin Hee-kyung) for the real thing.
As Jung and Kim keep bumping into each other, an attraction slowly grows, almost without their realizing it. Separately, they confess their love to the bank’s security cameras, and only after Kim accidentally sees Jung’s confession — some 90 minutes into the movie — does he set out to determinedly court her. Adopting a more mature look hereon, with her hair down, Jung cautiously edges toward a more permanent relationship with him, with irony rampant on both sides up to the final reel.
Shot and played with great finesse, pic mitigates its lack of incident with exceptional playing by the two leads and a strong sense of knowing exactly where it’s going from the start. Aside from Jin as Kim’s sculptress friend, there are almost no other roles of importance — but it really doesn’t matter. Tech credits are top class. Original English title was “I Wish I Had a Wife Too.”