“Incredibly weird — but delightful” was one audience member’s indelible comment after the UK premiere of Lee Won-suk’s insane comedy Killing Romance on Friday. Starring Lee Hanee, a former Miss Universe recently seen in the sci-fi romp Alienoid, it tells the story of Hwa Yeo-rae, a viral internet star who becomes trapped in a controlling marriage to the evil Jonathan Na (Lee Sun-kyun, who played the head of Parasite’s rich Park family). To escape from Na, Yeo-rae teams up with her new neighbor Beom-woo (Gong Myung), a young superfan who dreams up a series of increasingly bizarre murder plots.
On paper, it sounds like a traditional neo-noir, but in Director Lee’s hands it becomes a delirious, twisted live-action Disney cartoon, complete with song-and-dance routines and a telepathic ostrich intent on spaghetti western-style revenge. The fact that it was shot during Covid didn’t help matters — turfed out of its studio home in Seoul, the production became “a travelling circus”, moving from location to location, shooting on the fly. “Sometimes we got really lucky,” Lee admitted, “and sometimes we didn’t; there were some scenes we couldn’t use because they were so badly shot, to be honest.” As a result, the film has a dreamlike flow that doesn’t bear much interrogation. “Don’t ask why, just go with it,” laughed Lee.
Bizarrely, however, the film was supposed to be a traditional movie. “Originally, the script was a [straight] drama,” said Lee. “It’s written by Park Jeong-ye, the famous Korean writer, and when I got the script, I was really interested. It was a really good script, but I was doing something else. Then the project didn’t happen, and the production company came back with the script. They didn’t change anything, but they told me I could do whatever I wanted. So, I decided to make it as a fairy tale. I do a lot of really odd stuff in Korea, and when I send out my scripts, it’s really hard to convince the investors. So, I always say, ‘What if…?’ They’re the magic words. Anything goes from that point.”
Needless to say, though it has since found favor in the west at specialist film festivals, Killing Romance proved divisive when it premiered at home in April. “The audience in Korea, they hate it, or they love it,” said Lee. “There’s a thing there called the Golden Egg [an aggregate review site like Rotten Tomatoes], and we set a record. After the film got released, within two hours the Golden Egg got cracked. It was the fastest film to crack the egg.” He laughed. “And that’s not good — the egg is supposed to stay intact! Usually, it stays intact for three or four days, but within two hours of our film being released, it got cracked. But then these fanatic fans start rising up, and, thanks to them, the cracked egg became the golden egg again. That had never happened before in Korean history.”
Lee credited social media for this change of fortune. “I used to think Tweeters were evil,” he said, “but people on Twitter start loving this film. Every time they watch it, they find new symbolism, new things, and whenever we have a screening, they come and ask me questions like, ‘Oh, did you do this scene on purpose?’ And I say, ‘No.’ [Laughs] A lot of things in the film are things I didn’t plan, to be honest, but people think we planned them and that we’re trying to say something, but a lot of things just happened. But some people realize that, and they fall in love with it anyway, and they watch and watch it again. Every day I get, like, 80 to a hundred DMs, but I answer everything. I’m so thankful to them.”