Korean Film Festival 2017 Review: Because I Love You (South Korea, 2017)

Korean cinema has a knack for bringing a little heartbreak into their comedies, and Ju Ji-Hong’s 2017 rom-com Because I Love You has exactly that – more laughs than tears, but if you’re a softie like me it’s best to bring tissues, just in case.

Middle-aged music producer Jin Lee-Hyung (Cha Tae-Hyun) is on his way to propose to his girlfriend when he’s T-boned by a semi-trailer and finds himself flung into the body of a pregnant teenage girl… and then a police detective… and then a high school teacher… and then an elderly woman. Each time he finds himself in a new body with no idea where he is, who he’s occupying or how to get out. Each person is facing a crisis in their lives, which Lee-Hyung must now face on their behalf.

Funny without forcing it and at times painfully sweet, Because I Love You explores the side of life we don’t see – what’s really going on for everyday people behind closed doors. Passionate young love, divorce, dementia, and how they affect the others around them all have an impact on Lee-Hyung’s journey through several people, and in order to find his way back to himself he has to help repair a relationship for the person he’s stuck inside.

The story slowly ties two threads together: the here-and-now of Lee-Hyung’s mysterious condition as an unlikely body-jumping promoter of love and forgiveness; and flashbacks to encounters with the mysterious but beautiful stage-fright stricken singer Hyun-Kyoung (Seo Hyun-Jin), who Lee-Hyung can’t quite remember but in each body he occupies, he can’t quite forget either.

The character of Jin Lee-Hyung is brilliant – and shared across several actors as he jumps from one body to the next. His occupation of high school girl Mal-Hee (Kim Yoon-Hye) was hilarious and endearing, and of an aged-care-bound granny (Sun Woo Yong Nyeo) both funny and heart-wrenching. The portrayal of each new body donor is unique – when Lee-Hyung finds himself in newly-pregnant teenager Kim Mal-Hee’s body, we switch between shots of actress Kim Yoon-Hye looking every inch the high school girl – but walking, talking and acting like a middle-aged man – and the wonderful sight that is Cha Tae-Hyun crammed into a dainty schoolgirls uniform. The face we see is determined by what makes more sense, or what makes for a funnier scene, and it’s a fantastic and different take on an age old cinematic body-swap trope.

Lee-Hyung’s offsider, the teenaged Scully played by 18 year old Kim Yu-Jung, is the only one who knows what’s really going on – but she accepts the situation without complaint and steps straight into her role as confidante and accomplice. She is plucky, capable and selfless in her mission to help Lee-Hyung, who she knows only as “Ghost”, back to his own body – a vast and welcome difference to the “k-drama” portrayal of high school girls as helpless, selfish and obsessed with romance.

Yoo Jae-Ha’s 1987 hit song “Because I Love You”, from which the movie takes its title, features almost as a character in itself – underscoring important scenes, discussed fondly by several characters, and played by Hyun-Kyoung in auditions and performances. The non-diegetic music keeps it simple, classic and emotive – piano and strings, usually subtle, barely-there arrangements to quietly underscore the moment but at times lifting the mood of what could be heavy moments. As Lee-Hyung’s car is struck by the truck in graceful slow motion, the music is contrastingly calm and sweet – unsettling, at first, but a clear sign that this is not his end.

KOFFIA night 1 in Brisbane ended on a high note, with plenty of audience members leaving the cinema misty-eyed but smiling. Certainly not a fluffy, male-alienating romantic comedy, Because I Love You captures hearts and funny bones with ease and is well worth a watch when KOFFIA comes to your city!

Review score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)