@SGIFF 2015: Review - Dirty Romance

As lullaby music purrs, gentle rays light birthday decorations in what seems like a children’s room. Unsuspectingly, the camera floats to reveal Mi Joong’s reflection in the mirror; she is writhing, twitching, uttering unintelligible words from a crooked mouth. The uninitiated might be caught off guard by this uneasy transition, but for those who have seen Lee Sang-woo’s films – yes, it is another dark slice of life brimming on the margins of Korean society.

Other than the occasional trip to the market (in which her brother, Chul-joong, pushes her around in a trolley), Mi-joong spends all her time in the room. Practically confined to her mattress by physical and mental disabilities, she relies on her brother for constant care. But as loving a brother as Chul-joong is, the burdens of providing for his sister, coping with his studies, and struggling to pay their rent soon takes a toll on his being.

He seeks out an old friend, Chang-ji, and forces him to have sex with his sister, as both payment for an outstanding debt and Mi-joong’s “birthday treat.” Whether it is out of desperation to fulfil his sister’s desires, or as punishment for his friend’s philandering ways, this immense egocentrism of brotherly love teeters on perverse. As Mi-joong squeals “Chang-ji oppa” in delight, and Chang-ji summons up all manhood to get an erection (after barfing and several attempts at chickening out), we are confronted with a sex scene that is at once comical but pathetic, hilarious yet deeply saddening.

Meanwhile, Chang-ji is wrought with his own family drama – a dementia stricken mother and a brother recently released from prison for rape. Unveiling one tragic character after another, in a web of entangled relationships, Lee refuses to let us grow accustomed with either family’s miserable situation. He valiantly – almost stubbornly – pushes the boundaries of one’s tolerance for the abject, probing deep into the abyss of the human soul.

Complementing the wonderfully intense performances is the fluid movement of the camera; it follows the characters and tracks them down dark alleyways, in an atmosphere laced with tension. Through long lenses, we are forced to feel like voyeurs; often seeing Mi-joong from behind the veil that covers her futon, Chul-joong’s reflection from the windows of the jajangmyeon restaurant, and Chang-ji as peeks at his mother from behind the gates. Perhaps, this is Lee’s way of urging us to peer into the lives that society refuses to acknowledge, by bringing to light the plight of the mentally challenged in the most non-condescending manner. 

Alas, there is Deok-ho, a mentally disabled boy infatuated with Mi-joong. The pair form an unexpectedly poignant romance, their unworldly love a warm thread of narrative in this harsh, cold film. Further than the sexual depictions, Dirty Romance questions the very notion of what it means to love – Is Mi-joong’s one-sided love for Chang-ji valid? Does passionate love only belong to the mentally able? What extremes would one go to for love? Its answers are heart-wrenching, and fiercely sobering. 

Review by Amelia Tan

This review is part of the Asian Feature Film Competition series at the Singapore International Film Festival 2015. Read more about the film here.
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