“Couples” form, fly apart and realign like planets in intersecting orbits in Heong Yong-ki’s screwball comedy. Primary, secondary and even incidental romances share the spotlight with the main characters in this whirligig of shifting allegiances, as partners change and encounters spread out in ever-widening ripples, later replayed from different vantage points. Universal in its appeal, this Korean remake of Kenji Uchida’s 2005 Japanese hit “A Stranger of Mine” might fare best as the blueprint for a Hollywood redo, offering fun roles for top-drawer romantic-comedy talent.
Heedless of the failing economy, Yu Seok (Kim Ju-hyeok) mortgages his tea shop and his future to buy a home for Na-ri (Lee Shi-yeong) — specifically, the dream house where she says she wants to grow old with him. Once there, however, she disappears, mid-meal, on an ostensible bathroom break.
Almost exactly two months later, Yu experiences another really bad day. First, his friend and sometime private eye, Bok Nam (Oh Jeong-se), stalls him in his search for Na-ri. Next, a basketball falls out of the sky, causing his car to skid and graze an oncoming taxi, whose driver claims extensive (and imaginary) injuries. Lastly, Yu’s visit to the bank to extend his mortgage is interrupted by a heist, and a paranoid bank customer later accuses him of groping her during the robbery. Luckily, a cute traffic cop, Ae Yeon (Lee Yun-ji), testifies to his innocence.
All the elements in this series of events will be revisited, principally the meeting with the cop who will eventually become Yu’s next love. But the delightful structural conceit of “Couples” is such that no offscreen space is ever fully empty; all kinds of rapid-fire actions are later inserted between the slower-paced romantic scenes, right down to a kid balancing a basketball on his finger and setting off an entirely separate, improbable chain of actions that occasion another couple’s meet-cute.
Meanwhile, Bok Nam is secretly pursuing Na-ri for his own purposes, which soon have him fleeing from her other boyfriend, fearsome gangster Byeong Chan (Gong Hyeong-jin).
The pace never slackens, each reprise changing the rhythm and speed of the action and doubling the amount of information stuffed in the pic’s interstitial moments. Far from confusing, this multiplication winds up feeling quite satisfying, filling voids and engendering new possibilities.
The aforementioned dream house serves as the site of oncamera interviews with couples, major and minor, whose stories are recapped in “Amelie”-like mini-montages. But each story that commences soon hooks up with the ongoing narrative in a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”-style universe of parallel plotlines.