Fantasia Festival: Killing Romance (2023)

Director: Lee Won-suk

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Starring: Lee Ha-nee, Lee Sun-kyun, Gong Myoung, Bae Yoo-ram, Andrew Bishop, Debbie Reid

Director Lee Won-suk opens his latest feature in fascinating fashion, as though it were an episode of fictional TV series "Debbie's Reading Bus". As the eponymous Debbie (Debbie Reid) begins reading a tale from Korea, it's clear this curious opening is setting up narration for the unfolding feature.

Ever since setting the Guinness World Record for drinking 1.2 litres of a soft drink in 4.2 seconds, Hwang Yeo-rae (Lee Ha-nee) has established herself as a model and actress. After eleven-years of acting without taking a break, an embarrassing performance in a science-fiction blockbuster leaves her as the laughing stock of the country. This compels her to take a break in Qualla Island, a place whose reality is divorced from the paradise she imagined. After an attempted robbery is stopped by wealthy environmentalist Jonathan Na (Lee Sun-kyun), Yeo-rae believes that she has found her knight in shining armour.

Fast-forward to seven-years-later, where that happiness has disappeared from the married couple as they return to Korea. Their home is decorated with large pictures exaggerating Jonathan's manliness, serving as a tribute to the husband and an indelible reminder of the control he exerts in this lavish prison. As newfound hopes arrive to revitalize Yeo-rae's acting career, the momentary happiness is shattered by her spouse's manipulative tactics and violent opposition.

Living next-door to the unhappy couple is Kim Beom-woo (Gong Myoung), a young man who feels pressured as he remains the only member of his family not accepted into Seoul University. Those worries are paused upon discovering he lives next door to his favourite actress, whose fan-club he is a proud member of. As the pair bond, Beam-woo discovers the misery Yeo-rae is trapped in and the neighbours vow to kill Jonathan.

Working off a screenplay by Park Jeong-ye, director Lee delivers an exaggerated tone which allows for much fun to be had within this unfolding tale. A highlight includes an entertaining sequence of theoretical ways to kill off Jonathan, while a sauna-set freestyle musical session showcases how committed the cast are to the sillier moments. This is best exemplified with Sun-kyun's scene-stealing performance which captures Jonathan's goofball nature that rises to any challenge regardless of the clear hazards, while swiftly transforming to depict the character's vindictive and controlling nature.

Key to the film is Ha-nee being an absolute gem, effectively conveying the joy of meeting her adoring fans and the vindication of being embraced for something she was previously mocked for. As that joy is taken by her husband, she eagerly seeks to reclaim that feeling by permanently ending his control. Myoung captures Beom-woo's excitable fanboy that is eager to help his idol, yet is conflicted at achieving that through murder. Despite many elements in play, the convoluted routes taken highlight how the story cannot sustain the runtime, particularly when CGI ostriches are involved. Lurking within this is a satisfying arc for Yeo-rae, as her self-confidence is reaffirmed by those who look out for her.

Killing Romance had its Canadian Premiere at Fantasia Festival 2023