The pressure to get hitched, settle down, and have children is a universal travail facing young women of 'marrying age' in any society. However, in South Korea, it is one of the focal points in a tug of war between the country's traditionally male-dominated Confucian society and a conflagration of Westernizing influences. Compared to a generation ago, the proportion of Korean women with post-secondary educations and careers has grown dramatically. And like their Western counterparts, Korean women are choosing to delay marriage until later in life, with the current average marrying age at around 28 years old, compared to just under 25 in 1991. Kwon Chil-in's 2003 film "Singles", which recently enjoyed a North American DVD release, is a droll look at this tug of war through the eyes of its almost-30 heroine, Na-nan (Jang Jin-young of "Scent of Love" and "The Foul King"). Though the film is based on the Japanese novel "Christmas at Twenty-nine" by Kamata Toshio, the story is firmly grounded in the conventions of South Korean culture and cinema thanks to No Hye-yeong and Park Hun-Su's script.
When the story opens, the nice-looking yet reserved Na-nan seems to be stuck in neutral, toiling away at a dead-end job and having been recently dumped by her boyfriend. Her confidant, Dong-mi (Eom Jeong-hwa, seen more recently in "Mr. Handy"), despite being the exact opposite (an outspoken and flirtatious serial dater), has just quit her job and hopes to start her own Internet-based business. Complications arise with the arrival of Su-heon (Kim Ju-hyuk, who also subsequently appeared in "Mr. Handy") and Jeong-jun (Lee Beom-su, seen recently in "She's On Duty"). Su-heon is a successful corporate jetsetter who may be Na-nan's ticket out of spinsterhood, while Jeong-jun is Dong-mi's roommate and 'non-threatening male friend'. These two men create quandaries for both ladies-for Na-nan, she must decide whether she truly loves Su-heon or if she is merely acting out of desperation; meanwhile, Dong-mi and Jeong-jun inadvertently take their friendship 'to the next level' and must deal with the repercussions.
While the plotting of "Singles" may be old hat in comparison to Hollywood takes on male-female relationships, the unique South Korean perspective and offbeat approach to the material is where the charm lies. From observations of autocratic corporate culture, the not-too-subtle societal pressure to get married, and even jabs at the clichés that dominate Korean romantic melodrama, "Singles" is a breezy concoction brimming with wit and charisma that entertains without relying on dumbed down comedy or exaggerated theatrics. The film's unexpected ending also strikes a perfect note, with Na-nan and Dong-mi jettisoning the demands placed on them by both society and themselves and taking the road less traveled.
As the film's lead, Jang delivers a bubbly and off-the-wall performance that carries the picture, and she is ably supported by the scene-stealing Eom. With these two skillful actresses front and centre, the film's almost two-hour running time is hardly noticeable. The leading men Kim and Lee also acquit themselves nicely, bringing some credibility and emotional weight to their otherwise supporting roles.
Though "Singles" is hardly the first Korean film to look at the relationships of modern Korean women who are a little older than the traditional 'marrying age', it has probably become the most well-known, earning it the moniker of South Korea's answer to "Sex and the City". In addition to being a modest hit when it was released domestically in 2003, "Singles" tapped into the psyche of the country's working women, paving the way for more reflective and off-beat approaches to the romantic genre, such as Jang Jin's "Someone Special" and the über-popular television drama "My Name is Kim Sam-soon" which has been called the South Korean take on "Bridget Jones' Diary". If you are in search of a refreshing change of pace to the saccharine 'mix and match' filmmaking that has dominated the romantic comedy genre since everyone started emulating "My Sassy Girl", "Singles" will certainly fix you up.
This movie is available for purchase from YesAsia.com