After making a mark with his highly stylized 2004 debut, “This Charming Girl,” but then going off the boil, South Korean writer-director Lee Yoon-ki delivers his career-best work with the beautifully played, very natural “My Dear Enemy.” Best described as a Seoul road movie, in which two ex-partners reacquaint themselves while driving around the city on a personal mission, pic rides smoothly on the chemistry between its two leads, Cannes laureate Jeon Do-yeon (“Secret Sunshine”) and Ha Jeong-woo (“The Chaser”). Though local biz was poor in late September, this is classy fest fare with theatrical potential among upscale Western auds.
Lee’s fourth feature feels like the kind of movie he was groping toward in his previous two misfires. Like “Love Talk,” this extended conversation piece has a loose, jazzy feel enhanced by a perky-cum-bluesy score by Kim Jeong-beom. And as in “Ad Lib Night,” the action centers on a surprising journey undertaken by an apparently compliant female character (the script is based on a short story by Japanese scribe Azuko Taira, who also penned “Ad Lib Night”).
Though Lee’s protags have always been female, “Enemy” is elevated by Jeon’s low-key but utterly-in-charge perf and Lee’s own quietly assured direction. From its opening shot — a long take that follows tightly wound thirtysomething Heui-su (Jeon) from her car to a racetrack, where she surprises her ex-b.f., Byeong-woon (Ha) — there’s that unmistakable feeling of being in dramatically safe hands, maintained until the fleeting, icing-on-the-cake coda.
Precise details of the characters’ relationship are only gradually divulged over the single day they spend together, but it’s immediately established that Heui-su, despite her elegant, composed exterior, is in bad need of some green. Confronting the laid-back but broke Byeong-woo, she demands the 3.5 million won ($2,600) he still owes her, so he suggests she drives him around town to meet some friends who can help.
A middle-aged woman ponies up a sizable chunk, but the prickly Heui-su won’t call it quits until she has the full amount. As the day wears on, their odyssey takes in a wealthy bargirl (Oh Ji-eun) who calmly insults Heui-su to her face; a former g.f. of Byeong-woo’s and her unstable husband (in a comic gem of a sequence); and some biker friends.
Though the smooth-talking Byeong-woo gets the lion’s share of the dialogue, it gradually becomes clear the movie actually belongs to the more taciturn Heui-su. The way in which the chameleonlike Jeon, again looking completely different from how she’s looked in other movies, slowly calibrates her wary affection for the man who once done her wrong is almost a master class in screen technique — and one helmer Lee cleverly manipulates in the roadside finale.
Ha, so creepy as the wily killer in “The Chaser,” is almost unrecognizable here as the devil-may-care Byeong-woo, but does manage to hint at layers beneath the surface.
Widescreen HD lensing of the wintry capital — pic was largely shot in Lee’s own nabe of Yongsan, in southwest central Seoul — looks just fine in the 35mm transfer, with bleachy daytime hues warming as the pair recognize the common spark they once had. Pic rarely feels as long as its two-hour-plus running time. Korean title literally means “One Fine Day.”