In a drab Korean village in the gray dawn, a young woman sits in a locked car, refusing to let her boyfriend in from the cold, punishing him for a thoughtless response to a recent scare. The aesthetic is handheld, unfinessed: This would appear to be a representation of grim realism. But then the boyfriend makes a face, pushes against the windshield and comedy-pleads to be let back in. Appearances can be deceptive, and the intensely spontaneous naturalism of Korean director Kim Dae-hwan’s sophomore feature, “The First Lap,” belies the piercing precision of its insights, while its dispassionate, long-take shooting style does little to prepare audiences for the humor and heart of its utterly winning performances. The movie is tiny and sharply focused, yet its effect is of a spreading, enlarging warmth — perhaps the biggest little film in the Locarno lineup.
The movie’s closest kinship is probably with the recent work of Kim’s countryman Hong Sang-soo, and not just because it stars Kim Sae-byeok, who also appeared in Hong’s 2017 Cannes title “The Day After.” But aside from a couple of disorienting moments, the surreal stress fractures and time loops that give Hong his offbeat uncanniness are mostly absent here. “The First Lap” is more straightforward in its characterizations, but no less resonant for it. In fact, it’s the fully inhabited, touching ordinariness of the central relationship that makes the film so extraordinary.
Kim Sae-byeok plays Ji-young, with Cho Hyun-chul (2016’s “Tunnel”) as her boyfriend of six years, Su-hyeon. He’s an art school teacher but hopes to develop as an artist himself; she works in a small business. Both are professionals in their early 30s, but unlike most of their contemporaries, and expressly against the wishes of Ji-young’s disapproving mother, they are not married. There’s an arrested-development aimlessness to their lives, which seem in constant flux — they’re often shown in transitional states: driving through traffic, crouching amid packing boxes, briefly forgetting where they parked the car, eating leftovers standing up or takeout while sitting cross-legged on the floor. But these genial rhythms, cleverly edited by the director himself, are threatened when Ji-young tells Su-hyeon that her period is late.
The majority of the film unfolds in the span of time between Ji-young taking a home pregnancy test and her revealing the results to Su-hyeon some days later, and in the meantime there are two parental visits to be endured. The first is to Ji-young’s well-off parents, the second to Su-hyeon’s estranged mother and father, who live much less well-to-do lives in a small village on the other side of the country. The two contrasting dinners are uncomfortable in oddly interlocking ways, and while they are accented by flourishes specific to Korean culture, the passive-aggressive undercurrents of mutual disappointment that flow between children and their parents, each letting the other down in abstract, unquantifiable ways, are painfully universal.
This is not to suggest the picture is a scathing intergenerational takedown. In fact, especially after Kim Dae-hwan’s first film, the Busan-awarded “The End of Winter,” which is also a family drama but a far chillier affair, the undemonstrative sweetness of Ji-young and Su-hyeon’s private life as a couple makes “The First Lap” a surprisingly optimistic experience; it’s a rare and rather lovely portrait of the consolations of a long-term relationship between people who still get a conspiratorial kick out of each other, even if each is well-acquainted with the other’s shortcomings and the first burn of passion is gone. Bedroom scenes are cuddly rather than sexy, with the pair lit in the reflected glow of their smartphones snuggled under a crinkly duvet.
There’s nothing grandiose about “The First Lap” — like its irresistible central characters it is not defiant or rebellious, just quietly, gently its own thing. But with relationship stories so often playing as keyed-up melodramas, eavesdropping on Ji-young and Su-hyeon as they bicker and make up over these few fraught days is a refreshing, soothing pleasure. And it’s a hopeful one too, for anyone similarly negotiating a partnership that seems to zag when it’s supposed to be zigging, because, really, who cares if everyone in life thinks you’re going in the wrong direction if you have a kindred spirit to go in the wrong direction with?