There’s no way to avoid taking the bait. Early on in Lee Kwang-kuk’s meta whatsit, Romance Joe, a filmmaker named Lee arrives at a rural inn to start work on his new script. When, taking a break, he orders coffee from a local café, an attractive young woman shows up with the drinks, and he ends up paying her three hundred dollars to keep him company for the night. When the woman realizes who her client is, she exclaims excitedly about her fondness for his films, citing the reason for her enthusiasm as his “critical approach to narrative.”
Lee Kwang-kuk’s film is full of such proclamations about the nature of storytelling, the relationship between a director and his movies, and the thin line between art and life. In addition, the filmmaker fractures his own narrative in a myriad of ways, opening up stories within stories and making his central through line unfold now as a story told by the coffee girl, now as a précis of the hotshot filmmaker’s newest screenplay.
As such, it’s impossible not to see Romance Joe as attempting to offer its own critical approach to narrative, Lee Kwang-kuk’s movie mirroring that of the work of his similarly named on-screen surrogate. And in many ways Romance Joe is a virtuoso work, weaving together different strands of story that cohere—at least to a degree—into a graspable narrative. (At several points, the continuity between the different story lines is called seriously and quite deliberately into question.) But in fracturing the tale of a doomed, suicidal romance and its subsequent transmutation from life to art, Lee seems to be playing games with narrative simply for the sake of the exercise.
Despite its share of perfectly realized moments (the central couple as kids holding hands on a nighttime bus as they run away from the Korean countryside to Seoul) and digital cinematography at once ultra-precise and shimmering (check out the way DP Jee Yune-jeong shoots greens), none of the stories being enacted seem worth the telling. Unlike other recent experiments in multiple, fractured narratives, like Extraordinary Stories and Mysteries of Lisbon, Romance Joe‘s storytelling strategies seem more like smokescreens for a writer-director with little to say. And the proof is that, whereas Mariano Llinás and Raul Ruíz engaged with material sufficiently strong that they didn’t have to keep insisting on their unorthodox storytelling methods, Lee Kwang-kuk can scarcely fill 10 minutes of screen time without reminding us of his own commitment to upending traditional concepts of narrative.