Film Review: All About my WifeExhilaratingly entertaining Korean rom-com, with sparkling performances and some very original writing.
Doo-hyun (Lee Sun-kyun) has been married for seven years to pretty, smart Jung-in (Lim Soo-jung), but is at the end of his rope with her constant complaining and nagging. He’s too cowardly to directly ask her for a divorce, so when she follows him across Korea to keep him (unwanted) company during a business trip, he hires his devastating playboy of a neighbor, Seong-ki (Ryu Seuong-ryong), to seduce her away from him.
Director/co-writer Min Kyu-dong’s wacky study of modern urban marriage, although overextended, manages to satisfyingly deliver some outrageous laughs and keen observations, as well as moments of real tenderness and passion. The basic premise of All About My Wife is reminiscent of the sparkling boudoir farces Lubitsch was spinning from the silent era through the 1940s, but Min’s hand is less glamorously gossamer, much more abrasively (and funnily) in-your-face, with a decided—very Korean—bent towards potty humor. Call it Almodóvar, Seoul-style.
Jung-in is a nicely original shrew of a character, obnoxious as hell, but also highly relatable, as she cannot help spouting the very things people might be thinking but are far too aware of social propriety and discretion to actually say out loud. “What’s wrong with complaining?” she avers on the radio show which has hired her to do exactly that. “At least, it’s honest!” Her attacks on smugly self-satisfied corporate wives who condescend to her at her husband’s business functions; insensitive advertising campaigns which feature animals dancing happily on the grills which fry them; and people’s overall bland acceptance of so much that is wrong in life are very amusing and often on-target. At times, she recalls Katharine Hepburn in all those movies in which she was so verbosely superior, only to be swatted down by the large, patriarchal paw of Spencer Tracy.
Lim makes a juicy meal of the compellingly complex woman she has been given to play, and is also affectingly tender when she confesses her life’s “Rosebud”: when her father rudely quashed her youthful dreams of being a writer, thereby leading to a frustrated life as unfulfilled homemaker. She met her husband originally in Japan, and he was struck by the very different, gentler demeanor she then possessed when only speaking Japanese, a cultural/language difference the director wittily exploits.
Lee is initially too cartoonish as her henpecked spouse, like Jack Lemmon in those indifferent rom-coms he made without Billy Wilder in the 1960s, but gains in appeal as Doo-hyun realizes just what he is losing, wife-wise. Ryu makes a bracingly game and sexy romantic partner for Lim. Seemingly very ordinary, Seong-ki’s devastating Casanova-effect on women is accurately conveyed as he deadpan-boasts of, and then demonstrates, a hilariously inexhaustible array of personal assets, ranging from speaking fluid French, with a goodly smattering of Afrikaans, to gourmet cooking and having trained in ballet for five years.