- In Disney+ romantic K-drama, Lee Sung-kyung and Kim Young-kwang’s characters don’t meet in the best of circumstances but are destined for love
- The series is full of lingering images of characters lost in thought and melancholic scenes, but the poorly edited flashbacks and jumps forward are jarring
Disney’s latest Korean series is the slow-burning romantic melodrama Call It Love, starring Lee Sung-kyung and Kim Young-kwang as two people, weighed down by unfair circumstances, who meet in a very unusual way.
It will probably be a few weeks until the seed of romance sprouts between them, as this show takes its time setting up its story. Lingering images of characters lost in thought are frequent and some shots even play in reverse, such as when raindrops flick from a red umbrella up towards the sky on a sad and rainy day.
Lee plays Sim Woo-joo, a part-timer working in her friend Yoon Joon’s (Sung Joon) pharmacy who has taken on the role of surrogate mother to her siblings in their family home, even though she isn’t the eldest – that would be Hye-sung (Kim Ye-won), who works as a bank teller. Woo-joo is the middle child.
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Woo-joo likes to drink with Joon and talk wistfully about a life that’s passing her by. She has already had a hard run of things – her mother died following an illness they could ill afford, and her father ran off with his mistress many years ago.
Woo-joo comes across as very wistful in the show’s voice-over. As the story begins, she’s talking over images of a man working in his office. Sounding like many a melancholy radio host in South Korea, Woo-joo quotes poetry as she explains that understanding someone’s loneliness is the beginning of love.
The person we’re seeing is Han Dong-jin (Kim), the young co-CEO of a fledgling company that stages business fairs. Business, however, isn’t going very well, as the chief executive of the company he used to work at keeps underbidding them for contracts out of spite after many of his best workers went to Dong-jin’s company.
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During one of their drinking sessions, Woo-joo bets Joon that it will rain the next day, even though the forecast only gives it a 10 per cent chance. The next day it does rain and she takes this as a sign to do something a little crazy.
She puts on a racy cocktail dress and red shoes and cabs it over to her father’s funeral, hell-bent on causing a scene. She succeeds, but gets more than she bargained for when she discovers her father’s mistress has inherited the family home and just sold it. Woo-joo and her siblings have a week to get out.
This injustice would be enough to get anyone worked up, but Woo-joo isn’t just anyone. She vows revenge, and her immediate target is the beneficiary of her former home’s sale – the mistress has loaned the proceeds to her son Dong-jin to save his struggling business.
Woo-joo quits the pharmacy and starts part-timing at Dong-jin’s company.
Beyond its wistful voice-over, what is immediately striking about Call It Love is its deliberate style. The show’s pacing is slow as it luxuriates in the emotional grey space its characters occupy.
We can’t yet understand what drives these protagonists, but the camera piques our curiosity by keeping us at a distance from them; it often tracks alongside the characters, too far away for us to reach out and touch them as we see them walk through the lines and boxes that trap them, such as when Dong-jin stalks his company’s office floor.
Dong-jin and Woo-joo often walk around Seoul in a daze, their heads silently bobbing up and down at the very bottom of the frame, as though they are being crushed by the weight of the society that fills the screen above them.
This measured style serves Call It Love quite well for the first half of its first episode, adding an artful and pensive tone, but the more the story begins to intrude, as it must, the more it becomes clear that the writing of the show is very formulaic.
The show’s structure also affects the way the story is conveyed, as it occasionally jumps ahead, landing us in jarring moments where we can’t understand what is happening, only to fill us in later. This is a common technique in K-drama storytelling, but in this case the show is poorly edited.
Equally poorly edited are the flashbacks, which also cut up the story into bites we can’t yet digest. Different flashbacks have their own aggressive visual signatures. Those involving Woo-joo’s family are saturated and stretched lengthwise, while Dong-jin’s story with his ex Kang Min-young (Ahn Hee-yeon) are drained of colour.
Following her role in Sh**ting Stars, Lee plays another gutsy character, but in a more silent and melodramatic register – there’s a lot of standing around and crying.
For his part, Kim plays the handsome and stoic male lead. Yet, more so than most of the many examples of this stock character, Dong-jin is thoroughly inscrutable and seems to be guided by logic and motivations beyond our ken.
That makes Dong-jin the second hard-to-read character in a row for Kim, who headlined last year’s bizarre Netflix series Somebody as a lonely serial killer.
This isn’t the first time that Kim and Lee have worked together; they collaborated on a movie called Broker – not to be confused with last year’s Hirokazu Kore-eda film with Song Kang-ho and IU – which began filming in 2016 but was never completed.
Call It Love is streaming on Disney+.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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