Movie Review: Sweet Lie (Lost and Found)
Next up is a movie from a few years ago that always gives me the warm fuzzies: Sweet Lie, a romantic comedy that released in the winter of 2008, which also goes by the title Lost and Found (Sweet Lie being the literal translation of the Korean title, 달콤한 거짓말).
The film wasn’t a box office success, and I can understand why — it’s a little too familiar and comfy an entry into the crowded rom-com field to be a standout performer. But it has an easy-going charm that makes it a fun selection to come back to every once in a while, and it never fails to put a smile on my face. Its appeal is in large part due to the utterly winning Park Jin-hee, who is the best thing about the film, though I did also enjoy the down-to-earth slacker turn by leading man Jo Han-seon.
Director Jung Jung-hwa went on to direct last year’s cable sensation Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, which can account for the reappearance of second lead (in both projects) Lee Ki-woo. Director Jung also co-wrote the screenplay and you can see his mark in Ramyun Shop (produced with PD Pyo Min-soo), which similarly explores the romantic-ideal-versus-reality dichotomy and utilizes the same style of undercutting earnest moments with comedy, although Sweet Lie is nowhere near as manhwa-esque as Ramyun Shop. I consider that a good thing, for both projects.
SONG OF THE DAY
Brown Eyed Girls – “좋은날” (Good Day) from the Sweet Lie OST. [ Download ]
Sweet Lie is a total fluff movie, but it’s a fluff movie done right. Centering around one of rom-com-land’s favorite tropes — heroine lies to engage a man’s interest, and the deception grows more unwieldy the longer it’s in motion — the movie gives us a story that is comfortingly familiar, but tweaks the narrative in just enough places to keep from being entirely predictable.
Sweet Lie uses the lie device to its best advantage; in spite of a setup that is silly and cliché-ridden, the story is elevated by a witty use of comic scenarios, outrageous antics, and yes, even physical gags. It’s what I wanted the drama Lie To Me to be, and the reason I was so disappointed in that show was because the premise was golden, and the execution just fell so flat.
In this case, though, Park Jin-hee is so comically gifted — the timing, the slapstick, the dialogue delivery — that it just flows. You believe her, and the absurd situation starts to feel not-quite-so-out-of-left-field after all, with Park driving the emotionally grounded character.
So, plot: Park Jin-hee plays HAN JI-HO, a lowly TV writer who’s about to lose her job when her human-interest-docu program tanks in the ratings and is cancelled.
Ji-ho has never been able to forget her first love from ten years ago, and the minute you get her drunk is the minute you’ve signed away the next half-dozen hours of your life listening her drone on and on about KANG MIN-WOO (Lee Ki-woo), the perfect boy from high school and subject of her desperate one-sided crush. He almost hit her with his bike one day, and thenceforth she was smitten. (The relationship of those two events is correlative, not causative, but sometimes you wonder.)
Min-woo never even knew she was alive, even though Ji-ho pined after him and spent months making an elephant stuffed animal (prompted by a trip to the zoo) to accompany her love confession. She couldn’t muster up the nerve to give it to him in person, so she sent him an anonymous note instead.
Currently, Ji-ho lives in a cramped apartment with her younger brother Ji-hoon (Coffee Prince’s Kim Dong-wook). Longtime school friend PARK DONG-SHIK (Jo Han-seon) lives in an adjacent building, where he makes women’s underwear. They’re all refreshingly ordinary people — they make do with what they’ve got, neither rich nor poor. Not too lazy, not too ambitious. Average.
Having gone to school together since their elementary years, Dong-shik and Ji-ho are so comfortable with each other that they’re practically like siblings — the kind who bicker and know about that birthmark on your butt and from whom you don’t bother hiding your porn stash.
Then comes the day when Ji-ho gets mugged on the street, and in chasing after her bag-snatcher, she’s hit by a car. It’s not a bad collision but she wakes up in the hospital to find herself labeled “Ms. No Name” and the other party named… Kang Min-woo.
Not about to let this opportunity slip through her fingers, Ji-ho thinks fast, and lands upon that crutch so beloved by fiction: memory loss. So when Min-woo drops by to check in on her, she schools her face into a puzzled expression and asks blankly, “Who… am I?” It’s the first of many times she adopts that hilariously vacant expression and uses that oft-repeated phrase (“And you are…?”) to deflect suspicion in a sticky situation.
Thanks to the mugger there’s no way to confirm her identity, and Min-woo is forced to take her home, to his dismay — and Ji-ho’s great delight. He puts up with the temporary inconvenience, while Ji-ho spends her days playing the part of perfect guest/future wife: She cooks for him (with the help of microwave meals), mends his shirts (accidentally sewing his sleeve to her pants), and performs her best impersonation of a sweet, demure lady.
It’s not too difficult keeping up the ruse because her brother’s not concerned about Ji-ho’s absence (and their parents are dead). Dong-shik is the only one who cares about finding her, but his attempts to report her missing are waved aside by the police, who tell him to wait longer, to his frustration.
Min-woo displays a bare minimum of interest in Ji-ho at first, just wanting to resolve this problem quickly. But the longer Ji-ho’s around the more they start to get comfortable around each other, and he gradually warms toward her.
Of course, this is all facilitated by Ji-ho’s diligent Mary Sue act; she asks about his preferred type (quite and feminine, like Mom) and then makes sure to act as though that’s exactly who she is. She’s not entirely without morals; she wrestles with her conscience several times, wanting to give up the ruse but also unable to pass up this golden opportunity to win the man of her dreams. And yet, Min-woo mentions that he prizes honesty above all else, having once dated a liar and now finding it difficult to trust people who deceive. Gulp.
But as it turns out, she needn’t rely on her conscience to interfere with the Grand Plan, because an external complication arises: Dong-shik finds her and identifies her, putting an end to her Mr.-Right-falls-for-amnesiac-houseguest hopes.
Ji-ho can’t cop to her lie in front of Mr. Right, and thankfully for her Dong-shik buys the amnesia explanation entirely. So does her brother, who is easily convinced and utters in horror, “Noona used jondaemal with me!” (These are not the brightest bulbs. But they are cute in their slackerly dimness.)
Too bad, however, that this occurs just when Min-woo starts to show a romantic interest; Ji-ho has no excuse to keep living with him, but she does contrive excuses to keep bumping into him.
Dong-shik decides it’s up to him to retrieve Ji-ho’s lost memory, so he drags her around the city to locations from their shared past, like the high school they attended. He even organizes a mini-reunion of their friends, which just disperses the lie even more.
One of my favorite recurring bits is how Dong-shik and her brother “remind” Ji-ho of past events… by painting themselves in flattering and totally false lights. For instance, Dong-shik describes always defending her in school against harassing boys, while Ji-ho grits her teeth, because she remembers perfectly well that he was always the one doing the harassing. But who is she to complain? She grimaces behind their backs and they puff themselves up proudly. Heh.
Dong-shik continues the totally futile Operation Get Ji-ho’s Memory Back, which gets in the way of her own Operation Pursue Min-woo. There’s also the job she doesn’t want to lose, so when she’s called in by the boss for a new project, she heads to the station ready to act as her normal self at work. Only, a curious Dong-shik follows her and wonders why she’s here, widening the lie’s orbit even further because she then has to include her co-workers in the amnesia routine.
It’s hilarious because she’s so frustrated, but has to keep all her balls in the air, even though pesky Dong-shik is just throwing more of them at her.
For the first half of the film, I think it’s safe to say that Dong-shik’s mostly a fly in the ointment, popping up to complicate Ji-ho’s life. But as things progress, we start to wonder whether there’s more driving his actions than a platonic concern for an old friend, even though he certainly doesn’t ever let on to an attraction to her.
This leads me to my absolute favorite part of the movie, when Ji-ho and Min-woo are finally clicking, and potentially headed toward romance town. Dong-shik is, as usual, on hand to ruin the mood, and then he drops the bomb to Min-woo: “I wasn’t going to say so until Ji-ho got her memory back, but actually… we’re dating. For two years. Buh-bye!” Ha!
Ji-ho protests, but since she’s trapped in her act she can’t actually contradict him, and thus Min-woo goes home confused. She knows Dong-shik’s lying out of his teeth, but how can she argue without revealing the truth? It cracks me up.
To explain how they got together, Dong-shik concocts an elaborate story full of dramatic twists, like Keyser Soze writing Love Actually. It’s totally absurd — but brother Ji-hoon walks in on the explanation and falls for it, engulfing Dong-shik in a bear hug, ecstatic to have his favorite hyung dating his noona. Supposedly. Ji-ho stews.
Ji-ho is later able to persuade Min-woo that Dong-shik was lying, and that they aren’t dating after all. In the ensuing days, she continues to see Min-woo, while Dong-shik tries to convince her that he loves her and is the right guy for her.
It’s around this point that we start to get a bit more emotional depth from the characters, particularly with Dong-shik. He’s been kind of a bumbling loser thus far, but when we get to see glimpses of the feelings he’s been harboring, we finally get a connection with him. While it’s funny to watch him latching on to Ji-ho, it’s better when we can see what lies underneath the joking, bickering, best-buddy facade.
Brother Ji-hoon wonders whether Dong-shik’s feelings for his sister are a result of hanging around for so long, like a habit gone awry, confused into a romance-like emotion. Dong-shik replies that it wasn’t being with Ji-ho for years that created the love, but that being in love led him to stick around.
What I like about the tone of the film is that it doesn’t get soggy with the dramatics, though; there’s always a quick wit to draw back from too much earnestness, like in the exchange that follows Dong-shik promising to stick with Ji-ho no matter what, ignoring the fact that she’d rather he un-stick himself from her side, thank you very much.
Dong-shik: “I’ll do whatever I can to get your memory back. I could even die.”
Ji-ho: “Then DIE!”
Dong-shik: “I love you, too.”
It’s worth noting that Min-woo is a dead bore, but it is — not to sound like an apologist — for good reason. Ji-ho has built him up in her mind for the past decade, and she never really knew him in the first place, so he has taken on epic proportions in her imagination. He is the embodiment of love at first sight, of a dream man made flesh and blood. So what if he’s kind of stuffy and conservative and reserved?
Ji-ho argues that love is like being hit by a bike — it’s not about looking at the familiar guy next you and deciding you’re actually in love with him. It doesn’t even occur to her that Min-woo’s personality indicates a mismatch; the answer, then, is to make herself fit his ideal so he’ll fall for her. (As a corollary, there’s an amusing bit when the two men face off challengingly, and Min-woo says he likes Ji-ho for who she is — you know, sweet and placid and womanly. Dong-shik blurts confusedly, “Wait, who are we talking about?”)
Even so, Ji-ho starts to wonder whether it’ll work out after all. The obvious worry is that he’ll be disappointed in the real Ji-ho once her memory is “back,” but there’s also a niggling worry that maybe he doesn’t quite do it for her, either. Does he? He should. Why wouldn’t he?
Meanwhile, the evolution of Dong-shik from loser sidekick to worthy leading man takes a nice gradual build, and there’s an unexpected bonus when we discover why Dong-shik loves Ji-ho, and how it all began for him. True, you do have to get past the question of why he never said anything till a rival showed up, and also why Ji-ho never looked at him romantically either. As with a lot of rom-coms, there’s a basic suspension of disbelief requirement in order to get past the initial premise, and those issues fall into that category. One supposes that he was afraid of losing their friendship, and that he’d rather be with her as a buddy than not be with her at all.
That setup is another thing that I appreciate about Sweet Lie, in that it’s something of a reversal of the norm to have the hero pining for the heroine. I know that’s not unheard of, but so many of these best-friend romances are all about the girl secretly in love with the boy who sees her as the sexless best friend that it’s nice to see the flipside of that scenario.
What I mean by calling this movie fluff is that it’s a story that doesn’t really go beyond the basic plot. There isn’t an underlying message or theme, and it’s not trying to Say Something. It’s just a simple story about a cute, funny couple finding love amidst lies and shenanigans. That it does this well, and with numerous laughs, a speedy flow, and entertaining plot makes it good fluff.
And the term fluff isn’t meant as a pejorative, by the way, nor does it mean that the movie lacks emotion or dramatic resonance. There are poignant beats as well, and thanks to Park Jin-hee’s ability to emote in any scenario, those moments provide balance to the funny.
Overall, though, it’s the comedy that prevails, which works to the movie’s benefit. The humor can be hilariously dry, which I love, because it retains a sense of realism instead of going broad and outrageous. Even when we’re dealt with a slapstick moment, Park Jin-hee plays it so deadpan that the effect is droll, rather than jokey. She can do pratfalls that are hilarious for the physicality without seeming exaggerated.
In one example, teenage Ji-ho listens to a tape of Min-woo’s voice on repeat, all youthful infatuation. The taped portion? “Hello? Uh, who is this? Hey, if you called me, you should say something! Mooom!” To Ji-ho, though, the message is all dulcet tones and swoonworthy charm.
When her brother gives her advice, the scene takes on a thoughtful tone because it’s a reversal of his normally carefree self. He explains dumping the girl he’d been chasing after for ages because it turned out that she wasn’t the girl he thought, that it was like a shoe that doesn’t fit right. It’s a moment that resonates with Ji-ho, who’s starting to feel stifled in her cage of lies, and it doesn’t help that the Gucci shoes Min-woo gave her have given her scraped heels. We take in the solemn message for a moment… before we see that Little Bro is reciting dialogue written for him by Dong-shik. You know, to buoy his suit. It’s reversal of a reversal, which keeps the plot from becoming too predictable, even though the nature of this story is essentially predictable.
To wit: Sweet Lie incorporates some well-worn clichés of the rom-com genre, like the study abroad complication and the grand airport dash. It’s to the movie’s credit, though, that it twists those scenes to undercut the obvious with a wry sense of humor.
The verdict: My romance-loving heart did clamor for more outright romance, and while I tell myself that the film gives me enough to fill in the blanks myself, I don’t think it would have hurt to deliver a punchier payoff. It’s not a perfect rom-com and it’s not even among the most memorable, but as I said earlier, it has charm and always makes me smile. So while the plot can be silly and some of the developments obvious, ultimately the movie makes me giggle and leaves me with a comfy warm glow. I’d probably rate it a strong 7/10 — solid comedy, light on romance, not quite unique enough to stand apart from the pack — but on a good day I might give it an 8.
(If you’re interested in purchasing the DVD, it’s currently selling at Yesasia for $14.99. It’s the Korea version and therefore Region 3, but it does have English subtitles.)
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- The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry: Episodes 1-2
- Everyone’s all smiles for Sweet Lies
- Park Jin-hee tells Sweet Lies