The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Killing Romance is Lee Won-suk’s candy colored K-drama musical that may go down as my favorite new film I saw at Fantastic Fest this year. Romance stars Lee Hanee as Hwa Yeo-rae, a woman who garnered a place in the pop culture zeitgeist for being able to chug a watermelon soft drink in record time. She quickly transitioned from spokeswoman to idol, and finally starred in a sci-fi epic. While that film made a ton of money, Yeo-rae was ridiculed and mocked due to her performance, which landed her in the arms of the vain and abusive developer Jonathan Na (Lee Sun-kyun) on the secluded fictional tropical island of Qualla . After 7 years of self imposed exile Yeo-rae returns to Seoul, where John irons out plans for an amusement park. She’s then recognized by her stoner neighbor Kim Beom-woo (Gong Myoung), who’s a hardcore Yeo-rae superfan and will do anything for her return, including killing her husband.
Before you start thinking this is just the Korean musical version of To Die For, things don’t quite go as planned for Yeo-rae, which is a testament to Sun-kyun, who here is such a great villain. The actor not only spends the film hamming it up whenever he can with arsenal fake styled mustaches, but also dropping his infectious catchphrase “It’s Goooood!” whenever he gets a chance. Beom-woo eventually has second thoughts about killing Yeo-rae’s husband and saves his life, which endears the awkward 20 something slacker to Jonathan, while Yeo-rae is left stuck with a man who aside from committing ACTUAL MURDER, makes her stand in a corner while he pelts her with tangerines when she displeases him. The film uses the absurdist musical comedy elements to offset these darker tones, while still not completely erasing how terrible Jonathan is.
The film itself at times feels like a feature length K-pop video, it’s shot in that super bright style and also characters here are larger than life and can break into song at any moment. There’s even a scene where the film goes into full on Karaoke mode for scene towards the end. Speaking of the music, it’s catchy as hell, and as I write this I hope to rid myself of Yeo-rae’s bad girl soft drink theme song, which has firmly embedded itself in my cranial cavity. The performances here are surprisingly nuanced and deliver some really engaging melodrama to really keep you vested in all of the characters. It’s a hard juggling act considering how truly garish Jonathan is at times. But for the most part you’re still able to enjoy yourself, which is the point even when the film dips into the truly absurd. My personal favorite of these outlandish flourishes being, a running gag where Beom-woo has been studying for his entrance exams for so long and failing, that he’s manifested the ability to talk to animals.
I don’t want to delve too far into the particulars of the film for fear of spoiling some of the more hilarious bits, of which there are quite a few. But Killing Romance is charming, hilarious and sometimes even surprisingly heartfelt, when it comes to Yeo-rae’s introspective moments when she’s reflecting back on her career. There’s some thematic ruminations on the shelf life of idols and female performers in generaI that I found rather moving mixed in the comedy and drama. Thankfully the film sidesteps the creepiness of that older woman grooming a younger man to kill her husband trope that I was basically expecting in the first act to find its own way into this weird and wonderful melodrama that I can’t recommend enough. I thoroughly enjoyed Killing Romance, I laughed, I got teary eyed and I had a lot of fun watching this cast of misfits trying to find happiness amongst some of the best cinematic ear worms I’ve been treated to all year.