The emotional compromises forced by heart and career make engrossing viewing in “Jealousy Is My Middle Name,” a complex relationship drama that marks an impressive feature debut by former shorts maker Park Chan-ok. A raft of strong performances around a quieter central character, plus dialogue brimming with small ironies and truths, made this the most substantial new Korean pic unveiled at the Pusan festival, co-winner of the event’s competitive section, New Currents. A solid fest career looks certain, with sales to quality webs and some niche theatrical business also on the cards.
Park’s previous work as an assistant director included Hong Sang-soo’s “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” (2000). Though her filmmaking style is less detached than Hong’s, there are surface similarities in her main protag’s indecisive personality and the way in which the pic deals obliquely with human emotions.
Lee Weon-sang (Park Hae-il) is a 27-year-old academic completing his master’s thesis in literature and planning a stay in London. Working part-time as a plumber, he lives simply in a rented room in a house run by lively young Ahn Hye-ok (Seo Yeong-heui), who looks after her father (Gong Ho-seok) and emotionally damaged brother (Son Jeong-hwan).
As a favor to a friend, Weon-sang agrees to write an article for a magazine and subsequently joins its staff, even though he’s learned the publisher, Han Yun-shik (Mun Seong-geun), is the man his girlfriend recently dumped him for. Weon-sang’s life changes when he’s paired on an assignment with the sparky, independent Park Seong-yeon (Bae Jong-ok), a freelance photog who also does part-time veterinary work.
The scene of their first meeting, as Seong-yeon casually performs surgery on an unconscious animal, sets up the low-key humor that percolates throughout the film. Six years his elder, and with tomboyish looks and a casual dress sense, Seong-yeon intrigues the dopey Weon-sang but proves elusive sexually. Weon-sang also finds himself liking Yun-shik and his family, despite the older man’s tough professional shell, and agrees also to do menial jobs like driving him to work.
When Seong-yeon offhandedly starts sleeping with Yun-shik, Weon-sang pleads with her to stop — in vain. Meanwhile, Weon-sang’s de facto landlady, Hye-ok, starts making advances at him, and his ex-g.f. threatens to spill the beans to Yun-shik over their previous relationship.
Basic material has all the ingredients of a revenge thriller, with a younger man insinuating himself into the confidence of an older man who scuppered his relationship, only to find he no longer hates him. Pic’s appeal is that helmer always leaves that subtext on the table and instead goes for a more oblique approach in which the characters take precedence over suspense.
The experienced Mun, one of South Korea’s finest actors, dominates the going in an assured, laid-back performance as a serial womanizer who seems to have his work, marriage and affairs in perfect control. Mun is nicely matched by Bae (who debuted back in Park Kwang-su’s “Chilsu and Mansu,” 1998) as the photog, an equally assured character who — in some of the film’s best scenes — gradually becomes surprised by the depth of her feelings for the younger Weon-sang.
Leon Lai look-alike Park Hae-il plays Weon-sang as a study in emotional stasis, a guy who’s drawn to more experienced, emotional people but is painfully out of his depth. When Weon-sang finally makes a decision in his life, it hurts only a bystander to the central drama — and the coda hints that he’s going to make the same mistake all over again.
Technically, film is fine, with an uncluttered look and largely static setups that are well-lit and composed by d.p. Park Yong-su. Pacing over the two-hour length is moderate but never boring, thanks to the performances. For the record, Bae also plays Weon-sang’s ex (whose face is never seen), though the character’s voice is dubbed by another actress.