One of the most colorful and quirky films to come out of Korea for quite some time comes from director Lee Won-suk’s new film Killing Romance, a musical black comedy that shines with bright kitschy style while exploring the dark tale of an aging actress trapped in a perilous marriage with an egocentric aristocrat. This whimsical fairytale-like film goes beyond its eye-catching exterior, delving into some serious social commentary that makes it quite the unique watch.
Yeo-rae (Ha-nee Lee), a once-promising actress, faces the aftermath of a flop that left her humiliated and disheartened. Seeking escape away from the spotlight, she crosses paths with Jonathan (Sun-kyun Lee), a mysterious and eccentric entrepreneur with a darker side lurking beneath his flamboyant facade. Fast forward seven years, and Yeo-rae finds herself trapped in an abusive marriage, controlled like a puppet by Jonathan, who treats her as a mere trophy wife. Yearning for freedom, Yeo-rae enlists the help of her goofy neighbor Bum-woo (Myoung Gong) to devise a discreet plan to rid herself of the menacing Jonathan for good.
Beneath its seemingly kooky and colorful wrapper, Killing Romance actually offers potent criticisms of Korean society. Jonathan's manipulative ways allow him to maneuver above the law, rubbing shoulders with powerful politicians and the social elite. His tactics of manipulation and gift-giving reflect the deeply ingrained social dynamics that persist in the country. Even the seemingly harmless goofiness of Bum-woo's character highlights societal prejudices against those who don't fit into a predetermined mold of success. However, while the film adeptly brings some societal flaws to light, it sometimes falls short in recognizing some of its own, such as the glorification of celebrity culture and the use of sexual influence for personal gain.
Despite its promise, Killing Romance does stumble on one common pitfall of Korean cinema: an inability to edit down excessive length. The film's initial excitement gradually wanes as it treads the same plot points for too long, ultimately leaving me wishing for a more succinct and impactful narrative. The film could have easily trimmed 45 minutes from its runtime without negatively affecting any of the key character developments or major plot points.
Killing Romance also wears its influences on its sleeve, showcasing bright colors, unique designs, and quirky musical numbers reminiscent of La La Land, Scott Pilgrim, and Napoleon Dynamite, all wrapped up in Wes Anderson's signature quirkiness. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that Killing Romance sometimes feels like a calculated attempt to create a cult classic, rather than a genuine and organic result.
Killing Romance takes some bold swings and dares to step outside the confines of conventional Korean cinema and I deeply respect it for that. However, my frustration with it lies in the missed opportunities that could have turned this film into a true long-lasting gem. While it certainly stands out as a fun and distinctive watch, it sometimes pushes the pedal too hard, causing the film to veer off-course without a clear destination.