Let’s be honest, if you are in the mood for something delicately humorous, Korea may not be the best place to look. I passed up three dozen stories of heartbreak, struggle, injustice, and really awful luck before happening upon Spellbound. Maybe they all would’ve ended happily, but sometimes I just like to start from a happy place, y’know?
Not that Spellbound starts out all that happy. But it has the same light touch I appreciated in The Recipe, which regular readers have heard me rave about several hundred times.
Son Ye Jin is not a happy camper, although she is a camper of a kind. Haunted all too literally by her past, she sleeps in a tent in her own living room, alone in an empty family-sized house. Her demons have overflowed onto her friends, whom she now connects with only by phone, and her family has emigrated to escape her shadow (refreshingly, to Norway, instead of to the U.S. Really, if every Korean who went to America in films and dramas was real, it would be a lot easier to buy vegetarian kimchi around here).
Lee Min Ki is a good looking, good-humored guy from a privileged background who is for some reason performing on the street as a magician and not doing all that well at it. That is, until he notices a gloomy woman in his audience who won’t laugh at his jokes. This intrigues him so mightily that he stalks her down a dark alley where a creepy moment inspires him to transform his act with an original gimmick.
Fast forward and he’s successful, while Son Ye Jin is employed by him behind (or beneath, as the case may be) the scenes. He has a trophy GF, but continues to be intrigued by Son Ye Jin’s elusiveness. She declines to join in the workplace after-hours socializing, a big no-no in Korea, though he seems to be the only one who is really bothered by it. Eventually he goads her into joining a crew party where she drinks a LOT (Son Ye Jin does a great drunk), they get to know each other better, her life spills onto his, and he has to decide whether he’s up to the challenge.
Their romance is charming. There are the inevitable secondary characters to provide class diversity and dating advice. I especially enjoyed Lee Mi Do as a drama writer friend-once-removed, raising romantic comedy conventions to a delicious height of self-satire.
The courtship is filled with whimsical and understated moments and Director Hwang In Ho blends horror, humor and romance in perfect proportions, over and over again. The two stars are attractive and engaging without being beautiful beyond all relatability. Even the gender roles are balanced – Son Ye Jin is stressed but never helpless, and Lee Min Ki is concerned, but never macho.
Lee Min Ki should’ve been more conscientious about the fact that he already has a girlfriend, who restores her kibun with a nasty little piece of manipulation, before resigning herself to the situation and turning supportive of the new couple. Luckily, Son Ye Jin has enough friends to survive the stealth assault.
Which reminds me, there is real kissing in this movie, and the presumption that dating people have sex (off screen, of course). We even hear a word beginning with O and ending with M that I never expected to see falling from a Korean actress’s lips. No, I do not mean Om. Although it can be kind of like that.
I really liked this film, which is not something I say often. It was light without being trite or trivial, with an underlying optimism about people and situations that was a welcome antidote for a blogger slogging her way through a recap of the last episode of Damo. I highly recommend it as a remedy for the post-sageuk blues!
VOCABULARY: You will need to know the word hikkomori to understand a line early in Spellbound.
Spellbound is completely unrelated to the American film of the same title. The literal translation of the Korean title (오싹한 연애) is more like “chilly love.” It’s not unusual for Korean films to borrow an English title from an unrelated (but famous) American film. I don’t approve of this, but I have to admit that’s why it caught my eye. Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) is among my favorite films.
Spellbound was released in December, 2011. Other English titles are “Eerie Romance” and “Chilly Romance.” US viewers can watch it on Hulu, under the title “Spellbound.” On Viki, it’s called “Chilling Romance,” and is NOT available to US viewers (and not linked to their Son Ye Jin page, tch, tch). DramaFever does not appear to have it under any of the above titles, though the latest incarnation of their ever-changing interface doesn’t let you specify films in a search, so who knows.
It’s also available on DVD, but note that some Amazon buyers were disappointed to find their “all region” disc would not play in US DVD players. Read the comments before you buy.