Friday, May 1, 2009

Tribeca: My Dear Enemy

I went into this movie knowing it would remind me of my ex. It's a Korean film about two former lovers who are thrown together again in an all-day errand. My ex is half-Korean. I think it's impossible to properly evaluate a movie to which you feel such a personal connection. You end up thinking it's brilliant because of all the "Wow, that was just like me/us" moments. But those moments don't say much about the quality of the film. They just make you feel ... understood. Or soothed that what you went through was normal and universal. I don't know. I gave it a 5 (of 5) on my Heineken Audience Award ballot, but I'm not sure I could name three reasons why.

Maybe I'll give it a shot anyway:

1) It's a great premise. How many love stories have been told onscreen? Thousands? Tens of thousands? It's not easy to find a new way to do it, and this structure probably wasn't brand new either, but it was clever enough that I didn't feel like I'd seen the same movie 10 times before. The guy, charismatic but profligate, has borrowed $3500 from his estranged love and disappeared. A year later, she shows up to collect. Within 5 minutes, the dramatic tension is established -- she wants her money; he must find a way to get it -- and it keeps the story moving steadily without the need for crazy twists or subplots. The payback quest allows the couple's real story to emerge casually, almost unintentionally, since it's not burdened with driving the action. You're not sitting there waiting for the kiss/proposal/breakup. Instead you can enjoy each little clue into the characters' romance as it emerges. As a viewer, it keeps you in the moment without being completely bored.

2) The characters are really interesting. Never mind how I might or might not have projected myself onto him, the lead guy is undeniably fascinating. He's broke yet carefree. He wields an irresistible charm with women yet comes across as wholesome, almost asexual. He's confident yet nearly devoid of typical male pride or aggression. He suffers repeated insults and embarrassments yet remains preternaturally sunny. It's a unique sketch that defies easy interpretation. Do you dismiss him as a pompous grifter or take him at face value as a hapless dreamer? In struggling to assess this complex man, you come to sympathize with his one-time love, who finds herself in the same situation. Fiercely practical, she marches stolidly through the film with emotions gurgling just below the surface. As old feelings flare up and threaten to disrupt her purposeful but potentially lonely existence, she comes to embody the classic head-versus-heart debate. And it's a credit to the nuanace of the film that right up to the last minute you're not sure which side you're rooting for. You want both characters to be happy, but you're never sure how to make that happen. There are no easy answers.

3) It touches on universal themes. I've alluded to many of these already. How do you reconnect with a lost love? Should you opt for rationality or romance? How can a couple seem well matched and completely incompatible at the same time? These questions are addressed skillfully, without ham-fisted symbolism or stilted epiphanies. They're woven into an honest, well-told love story, a precious commodity in itself.

But the most interesting theme to me, and this is perhaps where my interpretation becomes overly clouded by personal history, is that of the modern woman confounded by the notion of inverted gender roles in a relationship. With the exception of his apparently extensive dating history, the male lead demonstrates no characteristics that would be respected as masculine. The woman, meanwhile, is strong, silent, stoic, practical, career-oriented. She's successful and holds down a respectable job. He relies on flirtation (and even, it is implied, semi-coerced sexual availability) to get by. It is not a huge leap to see their circumstances as A Streetcar Named Desire in reverse (though the outcome of this movie is far different). While the woman wrestles with a number of misgivings about rekindling the relationship, this is clearly one of them.

The woman, dejected over unknown troubles at the beginning of the movie, finds herself buoyed by the man's nurturing and emotional support. However, the man's situation -- penniless and imprudent in business -- is cited (not so much by her as by secondary characters) as an impediment to any continuance of the relationship. During a conversation late in the second act, a group of characters agrees that a man must be wealthy and successful in order to keep a woman. At several earlier points, it is implied that the woman left originally when the man's business fortunes went south -- a charge she accepts and for which she expresses guilt. This seems to invite the possibility that she could get past those hangups this time around. Nor does she seem particularly drawn to the idea of a traditional marriage, as illustrated by a scene in which she tenses in disapproval as an aggressive, high-powered man with whom they are drinking humiliates his wife. Nonetheless, the woman resists any overtures her old flame makes to reconnect and seeks to keep herself at a safe emotional distance.

Their relationship is portrayed as long and complex and would surely carry a lot of baggage besides his ability to act as breadwinner. Still, that issue lurks constantly throughout the narrative. Can a woman be truly happy playing the "man" in the relationship? What interests me about this is it's a dilemma I observe (or intuit -- it's not a thing that's often discussed) pretty regularly among successful, independent women I know in New York. Yet I rarely see the issue depicted in American media, except maybe played for macho humor (i.e. laugh at the pussy who's dependent on his high-earning wife).

I don't think this film set out to address this subject in any way, and I suspect the director would find most of my analysis preposterous. Hopefully he'd take it as a compliment to the story's quality that a random blogger can find deeply resonant themes that were never intended. If not, he can at least be stoked about the 5 I gave him.

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