My Dear Enemy marks a turning point of sorts for its three central figures: Jeon Do-Yeon takes on her first role since her award-winning performance in the emotionally devastating Secret Sunshine; Ha Jeong-Woo appears fresh from his own star-making role as the fearsome serial killer in the surprise blockbuster The Chaser; and director Lee Yoon-ki is tackling his most ambitious production yet after the low key made-for-TV film Ad-Lib Night. With its breezy tone and relatively light story, My Dear Enemy may not seem like an ideal follow-up to the previous successes from Lee's actors. However, it's these three central figures coming together that make the film a textbook example of how to do this type of story right.
My Dear Enemy marks the the first time that Lee is directing someone else's script (by Park Eun-Young, who co-wrote Maundy Thusday), but the script is also happens to be based on a short story by Azuko Taira, who also wrote the original short story Ad-Lib Night was based on. With that in mind, it's no surprise that Lee takes a similar low-key approach in directing a conflict-filled setup set in a compressed time period.
One morning, Hee-Su (Jeon) suddenly shows up at the racetrack looking for ex-boyfriend Byung-Woon (Ha) and the 3.5 million won (roughly USD$3,500, according to the subtitles) that he borrowed from her over a year ago. Also stuck in a financial slump, Byung-Woon doesn't have the money, but he's sure that he can gather enough if he gets bits of it from his female friends. As a result, Hee-Su is forced to drive him around town over the course of a day, trying to get enough money from enough people to cover the debt. Along the way, Byung-Woon slowly cracks the cold surface of Hee-Su, and she begins to see her lifelong optimist ex-boyfriend's real situation.
This urban road movie may sound too episodic to fully carry its two-hour running time. However, Lee and writer Park keep the focus on the initially antagonistic relationship of the two. While the episodes involving the friends can range from comedic (a restaurant scene with the husband of Byung-Woon's ex-girlfriend is a master class in comedic awkwardness) to flat-out main-spirited, each helps to enhance Hee-Su and Byung-Woon's characters, as well as the development of these scorned lovers' re-acquaintance. The film is far from being a laugh-out-loud comedy, but the snappy dialogue between the characters and the fluidity of the script, which rarely feels like it's simply going through a motions, very much match Kim Hyung-Ju's breezy jazz score.
Despite the challenge of having to shoot at a different location for almost every scene, Lee handles the visual aspect of the film with assurance. Except for a somewhat showy long take at the opening, Lee's style never calls attention to itself. He opts for a somewhat flat gray visual palette, putting the true focus on his two central characters and their interactions without resorting to flashy directorial touches that a less confident director might use. My Dear Enemy takes a steadier approach than the hand-held style for Ad-Lib Night, but it still takes a restrained, life-like approach to potentially emotional situations. This keeps the two protagonists' relationship grounded in reality and makes their typically sitcom situation easier to place in real life.
However, Lee's main actors show the most impressive amount of restraint. Both Jeon and Ha undergo major transformations in their demeanors that make them virtually unrecognizable from their previous roles. After spending most of Secret Sunshine in draining emotional outbursts, Jeon shows how to reveal an entire character through a lack of emotions by spending the entire film repressing them. Even though it's nowhere near as showy as her previous roles, Jeon continues to prove why she is simply one of the best actresses in Asia with this masterful display of subtlety.
Meanwhile, female fans should be happy to know that Ha does successfully shed his scary serial killer image from The Chaser, exuding a boyish, immature charm as Byung-Woon. Like Hee-Su, he's also hiding an entire character behind his façade. But, while Hee-Su hides herself behind a stone face, Byung-Woon hides himself with a joker-like extrovert personality. My Dear Enemy may be an exposition-filled road film on the surface, but it's also very much about what these characters don't reveal and the emotions they don't show.
In retrospect, nothing much really happens in My Dear Enemy; the characters don't undergo any great changes, and there isn't really anything in the way of an emotional climax. Many of the revelations are merely hinted along the way, and many of the realizations only occur inside the characters' minds. My Dear Enemy may sound like a surprisingly cerebral experience for an odd-couple road movie, but it's ultimately the subtle understanding and emotions the characters discover along the way that makes this seemingly pleasant and easily forgettable experience a surprisingly emotionally resonant one as well.
(Kevin Ma, 2009)