Dirty Romance is reprehensible, disturbing, and utterly compelling. Director Sang-woo Lee’s second entry into Fantastic Fest is a grungy affair that isn’t for the faint of heart. The South Korean provocateur has created something decidedly honest and ugly about the fringes of society. Everywhere Sang-woo looks, there is anguish and pain. Yet, there is also love, dedication, and tenderness. Dirty Romance is unforgettable, in every wonderful and terrible sense of the word.
Dirty Romance is a story about the desperate people who care for those that everyone else has abandoned. The only thing greater than their abiding love is the festering resentment over a life sacrificed. Their days are filled with unreciprocated affection, unappreciated toiling, and unimaginable loneliness. It’s the life that nobody wants to think about, yet is only one unforeseen tragedy away. In other words, it’s the worst case scenario.
It’s easy to dismiss Chul-joong* as a terrible person. He takes care of his mentally disabled sister, Mi-joong, often screaming in frustration over her inability to complete even the simplest request. Chul-joong is studying for the civil service exam, but is otherwise reliant upon the “kindness” of his uncle or stealing from strangers for income. His only hope is finding someone to marry Mi-joong so he can extricate himself from this living hell.
One potential candidate is Chang-gi, whom he coerces into sleeping with Mi-joong. Chang-gi has his own problems, however, namely a mother suffering from dementia (whom he chains to the bed to keep her from wandering away), and a long list of unforgiving creditors. Another possible suitor is a local boy, also developmentally challenged, named Deok-ho. He pines away for Mi-joong like a smitten school boy, despite Chul-joong’s hesitation to let them meet. After all, Deok-ho couldn’t possibly provide for his sister, so what good is he?
All of this is terribly sordid, of course, but Sang-woo never judges his characters. Chul-joong is living on the edge of disaster, where his need to help Mi-joong conflicts with his overwhelming need for companionship. He’s ready to rationalize the unthinkable; prostituting his own sister in the hopes of finding her a new caretaker. It takes patience and empathy to stick with Chul-joong’s story, as the first instinct is one of overwhelming revulsion.
After a bellyful of vile behavior from Chul-joong in the film’s first half, we see his soft underbelly in the final half. Whether it’s changing her diaper or soothing her tantrums, Chul-joong pledges to be by Mi-joong’s side “until the day she dies.” Even when forced to do unspeakable acts to avoid prison, Chul-joong sacrifices everything to keep his sister safe. It’s the seemingly incongruent desires of love and resentment that make Dirty Romance such a powerful statement about the human condition. Walking a mile in Chul-joong’s shoes might not be enough to win our affection, but at least we understand his plight and respect his determination.
Much like the characters, the visual style feels intentionally caustic, as well. Vertiginous angles and first-person POV stake out a disorienting landscape of urban filth. Sang-woo is fond of using other objects to obscure his target. A random mirror or dirty window gives a hyper-realistic view of the action, like some dirty voyeur peeking around the corner. Most of the scenes featuring Mi-joong are filmed through a sheer white curtain, adding an extra layer of haze to this already-murky morality. Even the subtitles are difficult to read, as the action is often framed with a blinding-white border. Everything about Sang-woo’s visual storytelling echoes the futility of these characters.
The performances are difficult to comprehend, as one might expect in a story featuring mentally challenged characters. Everyone does their best to yield the authenticity required by the story. The actors playing Mi-joong and Deok-ho are in a difficult position, as they must commit completely to these troubled and frustrated characters without insulting ‘real world’ sensibilities. It makes for an added level of discomfort that transcends the fictional story world; not an entirely bad outcome for a film set upon telling the naked truth.
Like his other film at Fantastic Fest, the comparatively accessible Speed, Sang-woo spends far too much time on unnecessary subplots. As a storyteller, he finds it difficult to keep things simple, adding layers of complication that only detract from his film’s emotional core. None of the story featuring Chang-gi is necessary, for instance, and a late plot twist feels like nothing more than a pointless provocation.
In fact, what prevents Dirty Romance from becoming an exercise in provocative voyeurism is Sang-woo’s earnest treatment of the material. He’s not making fun of these characters or judging their foibles; he’s merely watching what happens when people are pushed past all reason. Just because the boundaries of acceptable morality have broken down, life doesn’t afford the luxury of quitting. Sang-woo is interested in the endurance test that remains after all options have been exhausted. It’s a journey worth taking, but one must always remember that some things cannot be unseen.
Editor’s note: The cast and crew names are unavailable.
Fantastic Fest takes place from Sept 24 – Oct 1. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.