Director Lee Yoon-ki's brilliant debut This Charming Girl was without question one of the best and most original Korean films of 2004. A small, quiet film that delivered quite a punch, it was a refreshing change from the high-concept titles that now dominate the Korean film industry. His eagerly anticipated follow-up feature, Love Talk, finds Lee in somewhat of sophomore slump with a clunky drama that begins well, but ultimately loses focus (and steam) by the final act.
Shot entirely in Los Angeles, Love Talk is one of the few (only?) Korean films set amongst the expat community. It tells of three individuals, each of whom left Korea under unhappy circumstances with hopes of beginning anew in California. Sunny (Bae Jong-ok, Jealousy is My Middle Name) is a lonely 40-ish woman who works in a massage parlor cum brothel situated (appropriately enough) right next to a shady immigration law office. At night she listens to Love Talk, a radio call-in show offering advice on love and sex, hosted by Young-shin, or as she's known to her audience, Helen Jung. Completing the triangle is Ji-seok, Sunny's young male lodger who recently arrived from Korea with hopes of winning back the affection of Young-shin who left him some years earlier. The awkward and often uncomfortable intertwining of the three is structurally quite interesting, but Lee skimps on character development to the detriment of the dramatic tension, which by the film's end has withered into simple melodrama. A real surprise, given the rich, detailed development of Kim Ji-soo's character in This Charming Girl, which is what made it so special.
Part of the film's problem is its use of English. Bae Jong-ok, a tremendous actress, clearly doesn't speak the language, and the simple phonetic delivery hampers her ability to find the needed emotion(s), made all the more evident by the strength of her scenes in Korean. The other English dialog in the film is equally as stilted, but as the film is targeted for a Korean-speaking audience, this might not be as much of an issue.
At a macro level, there's much to admire about Love Talk, particularly in Lee's vision and direction. From its opening moments, it seems to be paying homage to Alan Rudolph — the night shots of L.A., the slow, lengthy tracking shots, and the jazzy Mark Isham-esque soundtrack are right out of the former Altman-protégé’s playbook. (Not to mention that Helen's late-night radio talk show is nothing if not a direct reference to Choose Me.) Lee's use of L.A. is very restrained, and he resists the urge to fill the screen with iconic images — there's not a single landmark shown, nor shots of palm trees, Beverly Hills, the beach, etc. The L.A. of Love Talk is that of the immigrant population — Asian, Hispanic, or Eastern European — and Lee limits his locations to the ethno-centric downtown area, as well as bits of West Hollywood. (Its realism puts Crash to shame.)
Lee's vision of America is far from romantic, and more than a bit cynical. Less a land of opportunity than a means of escape, the willingness of his characters to turn tricks or rewind tapes for a living says a great deal about their desire to be anywhere but home. There's an emphasis on the lack of tradition and culture, and relationships (including marriage) are presented as mere transactions — be it for sex, money, or green card. Though as lonely and depressing as things might get, there are always anti-depressants at the ready (which are still a rarity in Korea.)
Yet of all the cultural differences Lee draws attention to, none is more striking that the way meals are presented. The meal in Korean cinema, with its multitude of dishes (and equivalent bottles of soju) is often depicted as a communal and confessional event, where characters speak frankly and reveal hidden truths, secrets, and desires. In Love Talk, characters eat fast-food burgers in their cars, or sit silently side by side while watching television. Powerful and depressing images that are unfortunately lessened by a weak screenplay.
Though a disappointing follow-up to This Charming Girl, there are plenty of praiseworthy elements to be found in Love Talk, including several moments that approach perfection. Yet even on repeated viewings, its weaknesses outweigh its strengths, particularly in the final act, which sadly devolves into soap opera. Still, Lee Yoon-ki remains a director to keep an eye on.