Food, sex and intellectual property make strange bedfellows in “My Secret Partner,” an erotic comedy in which a budding screenwriter and sous-chef provide carnal and creative stimuli for their respective older mentors. Helmer Park Heon-su’s flimsy screenplay could have gotten by peddling hedonism had it stuck to the more photogenic aspects of its story, but instead becomes entangled in the clashing interests between lovers who share the same profession, a theme dragged out in a long-winded manner. A flop domestically, this lustrous production nevertheless has niche ancillary allure.
The pic gets off to a raunchy start as screenwriting instructor Jun-seok (Kim Young-ho) is waylaid in the restroom by his student, Yeon-hui (Yun Chae-yi), who argues that love will cure his writer’s block. Her shapely form proves persuasive, and soon, the two are brainstorming treatments in love motels, as well as scavenging each others’ discarded drafts from wastebaskets.
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The story gathers steam when Jun-seok’s son, Min-soo (Kim San-ho), is recruited as sous-chef to Yeon-hui’s mother, Hui-sook (Kim Hye-seon), a Korean Julia Child with her own popular TV show. Hui-sook has been rehashing her recipes and, like Jun-seok, is in search of inspiration; in a scene that pays direct homage to “The Graduate,” she seduces her new apprentice.
Whether it’s Yeon-hui’s brazen come-on or Min-soo’s ready-and-willing response to Hui-sook’s advances, the protags’ desires are portrayed, refreshingly, with a nod and a wink, rather than a raised eyebrow. Likewise, erotic scenes are choreographed with a flippant sense of fun, such as lenser Kim Young-no’s delirious lensing of Hui-sook’s sexual acrobatics, or the imaginative use of soy sauce as an aphrodisiac. In contrast with typical depictions of cross-generational flings, neither Jun-seok nor Hui-sook projects any neurosis about aging, taking their younger lovers’ attentions in stride. Returning to the limelight after an 18-year break, TV thesp Kim Hye-seon positively glows, her self-confidence and elegance making the bland younger thesps pale in comparison.
Diverting as they are, the erotic scenes are nonetheless too scattered and don’t build to a dramatic whole that can justify the pic’s excessive running time. Like his alter ego, Jun-seok, Park (“Marriage Story,” “The Nine-Tailed Fox”) is just emerging from a seven-year hiatus, and a certain rustiness shows in the helming. His narrative technique is conventional, running the affairs on parallel tracks without any interplay between the two couples until the contrived coda. The breezy, lighthearted tone gives way to humorless drama when both Yeon-hui and Min-soo discover that their lovers have been cribbing their ideas. Rather than exploring ethical issues concerning plagiarism, the role of a muse or problems that arise from dating someone in the same profession, the “crisis” feels like a subplot devised to spice up an uneventful story.
Tech credits are topnotch, especially the set design, which endows such familiar places as kitchens and hotel rooms with chic, sensual ambience. The use of excerpts from Bizet’s “Carmen” in love scenes between Hui-sook and Min-soo, and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” in similar situations with Jun-seok and Yeon-hui, playfully reflect the varying intensity of their respective exchanges.