After living in Canada for many years, Yoon-hee returns to her home country of South Korea to visit her mother who has dementia. Taking a cigarette break outside Incheon airport, she runs into Jung-soo, an old college sweetheart. The pair is surprised to see each other and agrees to catch-up about the last twenty years over dinner. Here, their flame is reignited as they bond over the feelings of loss and missed opportunities in their lives. Park Ki-yong’s Old Love presents a sorrowful and contemplative look at a generation of middle-aged Koreans who feel estranged from their younger counterparts, and are emotionally cut-off from the world, with its narrative further exploring how barriers of intimacy and fear of revealing one’s true feelings create a self-projected bubble of isolation and grief for an individual.
Jung-soo is an ex-actor, who is mournful about abandoning his career in theatre; he is now living in a mound of debt from his too-ambitious business ventures. Yoon-Hee feels alienated both in Korea and Canada, admitting how she isn’t allowed to go to her own son’s wedding and “feels like a guest” wherever she goes. Park is skilled at delicately touching on notions of modern regret and feelings of disconnection from the world. Shooting most of their encounters in alleys and restaurants, he uses a distant camera to ensure an audience never feels like they’re seeing the full picture or are getting too close to either character. Both parties are constantly hesitating with their words and trailing off, implying an emotional reluctance, found amongst older generations. Whatever they’re trying to say never fully comes across, and it’s all the more a sign of lost possibilities for the pair.
The film is over-ruled by bland grey tones, with warmer tones reserved for the occasional emotional purge between the pair in dingy hotel rooms. Wrapped up in the middle of winter, Yoon-hee’ and Jung-soo’s reunion is not one of joy or passion, but out of a sharing of melancholy and a quiet desperation for connection. It’s subtle and undoubtedly emotionally intelligent but dragging and tiring, nonetheless. With a plot so fickle and relying heavily on suggestion, it’s integral to have two characters that can drive the whole film forward. However, the chemistry between the two isn’t quite there. The hesitation and deliberate pauses obviously reveal a lot about their self-guarded attitudes towards each other, but it also grows tiring to watch for the audience as it is stringed along – never really learning enough about each character’s true self to be satisfied. Nor even really learning enough about why the two have put up so many walls, which makes it easy to lose interest from an outside perspective. It’s understandable for Old Love to want to focus itself on subtlety, but with that comes a need for detail and for a concise hand, hinting at least at something more.
One of the aspects of the film that did break the ice were the short hotel scenes. Drenched in an orange warmth that is foreign to the rest of the film, these scenes reveal more intricate and heart-breaking revelations about the pair. These are reserved for the end of the film, and it would have been nice to see more glimpses like this throughout. While the pair’s distance is understandable, their coldness is not awkward or brutal enough to leave a lingering impression; because it’s drawn out for so long, it instead comes across as bad chemistry. Park’s dialogue is realistic and hits the right notes, but is perhaps a bit too suggestive and vague at times to truly unravel what either of the two mean to say. This can get frustrating fast.
Old Love reminisces on some intriguing subjects, such as distance between generations and how a lack of emotional communication can lead to feelings of detachment. However, it’s a hard watch, and at times far too vague to grip onto and far too slow. While Old Love is endearing in its bittersweet motive, its outcome dithers too much and lacks enough nostalgia or charm to truly make an impression on the audience’s memory.
Written by Abi Aherne
Edited by Sanja Struna