Pity twentyish urban newcomer Sumin (Lee Young-hoon, occasionally recalling the pained loveliness of Leslie Cheung), a night-school art student whose tenuous Seoul factory job is temporarily saved by the smitten intervention of junior executive Jaemin (Lee Han), the boss’s masochistic, semi-closeted son. After failing at dishwashing, Sumin reluctantly takes up grinding in his skivvies on tabletops in a gay karaoke club and servicing patrons in the adjoining brothel. Jaemin soon comes calling, but favored-customer status isn’t good enough to relieve his carnal ache for the tender working-class hustler. Amid slapfights in alleys and serial reconciliations, the young plutocrat bleats, “Why can’t you treat me as a man instead of a john?” “So corny!” his beloved sasses back, “Can’t you say something brilliant?” A ‘30s working girl like Joan Crawford couldn’t state her demands more plainly.
Leesong Hee-il’s miserabilist l’amour fou might seem on its surface to lack either the Sirkian glow or Fassbinderesque kick to make its melodrama work—and it does, but Leesong seasons the familiar hokeyness with some flair. Whorehouse hallways, city streets and an office’s conference room are all inked with somber, deep shadows, and among the parental sadism, car accidents and illicit screwing are baroque touches like Jung Seung-gil’s performance as Madame, the potty-mouthed manager of Sumin’s bordello (“Come back and give me a fuck before you go!” he stamps when Sumin quits for love). Unfortunately, Madame figures prominently in the film’s climactic noirish swerve, which risibly posits the sensitive Sumin and the comically tempestuous pimp as plausible partners in a revenge plot. Despite dollops of sloppily executed violence and all the film’s messy passions, Leesong’s visual palate is just a bit too tidy for the sexual class-conflict tale that should be jizzing from the screen. Dialing down the pulp touches would’ve left room for more meditative images that stick, like a hand caked with cremated ashes, shaking them out a car window onto a floodlit highway.