Charting the love story of a mentally challenged man and a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy, “Dirty Romance” visualizes their biological needs and vulnerability to sexual abuse in a queasily graphic manner. South Korean helmer-scribe Lee Sang-woo’s observations of the hardships faced by relatives who care for them are harrowing yet at times deeply moving, evoking a compassion that was blatantly lacking in his early repertoire of sadomasochistic porno-agitprop, like “Mother Is a Whore” and “Father Is a Dog.” Yet his penchant for dwelling on violence and degradation remains no less punishing, even borderline offensive, which will make it difficult for “Dirty Romance” to break out of the independent festival scene.
Mi-joong (An Ha-na) suffers from cerebral palsy and needs round-the-clock care from elder brother Chul-joong (Park Young-bin). Since he cannot leave her alone to seek employment, they’re starving and behind on the rent, even as handouts from relatives are thinning to a trickle. Mi-joong has nursed a crush on Chul-joong’s old classmate Chang-gi (Choi Hong-jun) for 12 years, and it seems like they were more than friends at one stage. Now, the loafer is too busy hustling teenage girls and doesn’t even bother to hide his disgust with her physical appearance.
Chul-joong coerces Chang-gi into having sex with Mi-joong as a birthday treat, and as partial payment for a large, longstanding debt that Chang-gi owes him. Shot with jolting cuts and aggressive zooms, the scene is obviously contrived to provoke viewer discomfort, and make us feel like voyeurs to both characters’ desperation and humiliation. Yet, neither Mi-joong’s convulsive, ear-piercing expressions of desire, nor Chang-gi’s utter revulsion (he literally barfs into the toilet), prove as unsavory as the selfish extremes of Chul-joong’s brotherly love.
The truth is, life isn’t exactly fun and games for Chang-gi, either. His mother (Kim Hyo-sook) is far gone in dementia and he’s just as shackled to her deranged behavior and deteriorating body functions as Chul-joong is to his sister’s condition — and Chang-gi’s relationship with his mother churns with even more resentment, guilt and hints of something creepily sexual. Life becomes unbearable when Chang-gi’s elder brother, Duk-gi (Kim Dong-kyu), is released from jail and terrorizes everyone. On the upside, Chul-joong sees a ray of hope for his sister to find happiness when he allows Deok-ho (Gil Deok-ho), the mentally challenged son of a Chinese restaurant owner, to court her. While this very premise sounds ripped off from Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis,” the treatment here is simpler and more down-to-earth, culminating in a sad-sweet demonstration of love.
In a layered and poignant performance, Park hits the right keys even as his role goes through wild mood swings. The scenes in which he patiently calms Mi-joong’s hysteria, or gives Deok-ho a pep talk on how to man up as a lover (“If the girl you love screams, you try to understand what’s hurting her”) rep the film’s most humane element; even when Chul-joong is pouring the most wounding verbal abuse on his sister, his anger and frustration still elicit sympathy. An embodies Mi-joong’s disabilities with striking body language, despite the role’s limited emotional range.
Still, Lee hasn’t learned to temper his bitter cynicism about the violence and sadism he sees in Korean society, which manifest themselves so grotesquely in his depiction of family relations. Consequently, audiences are bludgeoned with an endless cycle of people groveling, whining, thrashing, sexually and psychologically abusing each other; it becomes a sort of miserabilia extravaganza. Recurrent motifs of soiled diapers and gooey noodles encapsulate the messiness of the characters’ existence. This is of course nothing new in Korean cinema, especially works with auteur and festival ambitions. Lee only does it more unremittingly, pushing the limits of taste with sex scenes whose carnality and fetishism of pain are exaggerated by the bare-bones production. However, unlike the subversive, politicized erotica in, say, Koji Wakamatsu’s pink movies, Lee’s shocking sexual violence serves no clear political or social agenda.
Tech credits, though spartan, demonstrate marked aesthetic improvement from Lee’s early works, just as his screenplay appears to have been less scribbled-on-the-fly. Jung Chan-ho and Heo Dae-ro’s production design achieves stark, disturbing contrasts between Mi-joong’s cutsey bedroom, adorned with Barbie dolls and Leslie Cheung photos, and the rank, dank slum to which Chang-gi’s mother is confined like a hostage or asylum inmate. Song Jin-yeol’s herky-jerky camera movements stylistically match the endless sequences of hysterical writhing and screaming. However, a substantial portion of scenes are shot through the mosquito net covering Mi-joong’s futon, creating clouded, blurry images that soon become a nuisance.