Thrown together after a 20-year separation, two college professors are plagued by a tragic secret in “Bewitching Attraction,” a moody South Korean meller with strong arthouse flavor. Locally, film opened well in March with an ad campaign that made it look like an erotic romantic comedy, but biz quickly drooped when the film’s non-commercial content and tone were revealed. Fest programmers may also be thrown off the scent of this intriguing item, which favorably recalls the more somber moments of pics by Hong Sang-soo and Woody Allen.
When Park Seok-gyu (Ji Jin-hee) gets a job as an illustration professor at a small rural college, he sees it as a financial advance on his career as a comicbook writer. Promiscuous and bored textiles professor Jo Eun-suk (Mun So-ri) would normally see any new man at her school as grist for her sexual mill, but instead, Park’s arrival raises the ire of the somewhat affected temptress.
The male staff at the college is territorial about their female colleague and suspicious about the intensity that’s quickly established between her and Park. Meanwhile, Jo is currently enamored of an out-of-town TV producer (Park Weon-sang) who recently interviewed her. She’s both compelled and repulsed when he suggests they travel to Japan together.
Flashbacks to adolescence establish not only that Jo’s promiscuity has a long history but also that she and Park were teenage buddies. At halfway mark, it’s revealed that Jo’s sexual openness indirectly led to the death of a mutual teenage friend — and that this is the source of the present-day friction between her and Park.
Movie’s emphasis on sex and death develops an emotional potency as the narrative continues to throw occasional curveballs, and a morbid atmosphere of decay haunts the protags.
As the promiscuous prof, Mun adds another startling performance to her portfolio, established with “A Good Lawyer’s Wife” and “Oasis.” While not as cookie-cutter glamorous as many South Korean actresses, she has a screen magnetism that is, indeed, bewitching, and radiates an intelligence and versatility that recalls a mixture of Meryl Streep and Barbara Stanwyck. Ji is disarming in the role of the new professor, and Park makes a convincing presence as the TV producer.
Lee Ha deftly handles the yarn’s twists and turns, while camerawork by Choi Ju-yeong eschews the usual South Korean gloss for a deliberately gloomy look. Original Korean title (“The Discreet Charm of a Female Professor”) has a Bunuel-ian feel.