[Movie Review] Timing, trust, and true love in Tune in for Love
It’s not often that I’ll leave dramaland in favor of a movie, but the premise and cast of Tune in for Love pulled me in. The film was released a few months ago in late 2019, but being mostly set in the recent past, it seems almost timeless.
The two-hour long story is told in a series of chapters, so to speak, each with a pause in between, and a span of a few years. In each chapter we meet our main characters at different parts of their life. And though their circumstances change, what remains consistent is their intersecting stories. In a way, the film is the story of our two leading characters slowly finding their way to each other.
The two leads are CHA HYUN-WOO (Jung Hae-in) and KIM MI-SOO (Kim Go-eun) — and admittedly, it’s this pairing that made the film appeal to me. Both have given some beautiful performances (in both drama and film), and I was excited to see what they would be like together. And really, they were magic.
When you’re in dramaland too long, you forget what it’s like to watch a story that leaves storytelling space. This space means room for nuance, subtly, and inference, and in Tune in for Love, this space was half by design (the tone and direction) and half by necessity (with a decade-long tale to tell in a running time of two-ish hours, there’s a lot of ground to cover). This space in the narrative was utterly refreshing — and seeing these two actors operate in this environment was the same. With all the gaps in the storytelling and timeline, it made the moments when our characters did come together all the more meaningful.
The film opens up in 1994. Our heroine Mi-soo works at her old family bakery with Eun-ja, an unni that’s like her family. We see glimpses of Mi-soo’s morning routine, get a sense of the history that the bakery holds for her, and we learn of her fondness for radio. That particular morning is Yoo-yeol’s first time hosting his show, and it’s the same morning that our two characters meet for the first time — Hyun-woo walks into the bakery asking for some tofu. As it turns out, he’s on parole from juvenile detention, and though we learn little about the event that put him there, the event hovers over him, and the story as a whole. Similarly, Yoo-yeol’s show is another thread established early on that also stitches their story together.
Hyun-woo starts working part time at the bakery, and soon he, Mi-soo, and Eun-ja have formed their own little adorable family unit — but before long, this chapter of the narrative closes. Hyun-woo runs off with his hoodlum friends, and we don’t meet our characters again until 1997.
If there’s one thing that stood out the most in this film, it’s the warm and authenticity to the story and setting — so strong, in fact, that it makes me wonder how it’s possible to do so much with so few scenes. Tune in for Love is rich with history — not only the history of the different years/eras it depicts, but the history of our couple’s relationship as well.
Years later, Hyun-woo and Mi-soo accidentally cross paths again one night in front of the closed down bakery, and it’s my favorite scene in the film. The three years that have passed in the story are incredibly palpable — in fact it’s hard to imagine it’s only been three minutes since you last saw them together on screen — that’s how real the actors make the stretch of time feel.
How does a production add so much emotional weight to the depiction of time? I often wonder what it is that can sometimes make the passage of time seem rich and compelling — versus the opposite effect (a cheap trick to push the story forward) that we run into so often in dramaland.
For one, in Tune in for Love, the passage of time is an intrinsic part of the storytelling. Though the film used all of the usual mechanisms to show us the time lapse (on-screen text, shifting seasons, different hairdos, clothes, and technology), there is something Tune in for Love was able to capture that I haven’t seen depicted so vividly in a while.
The emotions that run through the drama also helped this authenticity. Since our main characters are mostly apart, we see them experiencing the passage of time between their reunions, whether it’s the ache to see each other again, or the hope of it happening.
Stories of timing, connection, and romance are fairly common, but one way the setting of Tune in for Love set it apart was that their long periods of separation were largely based on the difficulty of actually finding each other. This wasn’t done the way we might see in a K-drama, with narrow misses and malicious second leads keeping our OTP apart. In Tune in for Love, their challenge to connect is because of the limitations of their circumstances.
It’s sometimes hard to believe how much the world has changed in the last decade or two, and how digital technology has revolutionized the way we connect and communicate with each other. In Tune in for Love, and especially in the first half, we’re presented with a story where if someone you like rides off with his friends, you might never see him again. There are no cellphones, social media, and barely any Internet. If you haven’t exchanged home addresses or phone numbers, there’s nothing but a vacuum.
That’s exactly what our heroine faces when she crosses paths with Hyun-woo for the second time in 1997. The two share a deep connection, but the timing is off once again: the very next day is the start of Hyun-woo’s military service. Mi-soo creates him an email account so they can stay in touch — but when she forgets to give him the password, years go by before they connect once again. It’s amazing how something so simple can have such drastic repercussions on the maturation of their relationship.
Whether it’s missed connections due to technological failures — or fate — their relationship continues to be challenged, even after Hyun-woo’s return from the military. Hyun-woo gets a cellphone, but when it breaks, Mi-soo only has a dead number with no answer. When Hyun-woo visits her old apartment from years ago hoping to find her, she’s moved out long ago.
In a different genre or medium, these little impasses and hiccups could come off as contrived, or even ridiculous, but in Tune in for Love, each event is believable. The circumstances and events that interrupt Mi-soo and Hyun-woo’s budding relationship are as authentic as they are realistic, and the understated way they’re presented only helps them feel more real.
The acting and the script give this film its authentic feel, but the direction is also a huge part of this. Throughout the film, I admired again and again how a plot that could have been messy or flimsy in less capable hands actually became something lovely.
There’s an intimacy in the film that’s hard to explain — some of it is from the intense quiet (you can hear the actors swallow and breathe most of the time), some of it is the way the camera holds on our characters a few beats longer than we expect, and some of it is because we join Mi-soo and Hyun-woo on their decade-long journey to each other.
It’s not until many false starts (and years) later that Hyun-woo and Mi-soo are finally together long enough to have a “real” relationship. And here, as expected, they have to deal with a lot of baggage from the past before they can truly find each other. It’s a nice statement to the fact that being in a relationship with someone is about more than being in their physical presence every day — it’s about trust, understanding, forgiveness, love, and all those good things.
I’ve read some critiques that Tune in for Love feels long and plodding — perhaps these folks were not drama watchers. We’re used to being with characters for about eight times as long as any movie, so often (at least for me) movies tend to leave me feeling a little flat.
But with Tune in for Love, I got everything I had hoped to out of the story; it’s a great little film. I watched Hyun-woo and Mi-soo’s story grow before my eyes, I got all the character development and complexity I wanted — and the simplicity of the storytelling made it all the more enjoyable.
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