[Movie Review] Sweet and Sour explores modern romance but leaves a sour aftertaste
Among the many films that didn’t quite make it into theatres last year is the romance Sweet and Sour. Thanks to Netflix, the movie is now available to all — but don’t go in expecting a cutesy tale with a cast you’re predisposed to enjoy.
The film is as much about the sweetness of a new romance as it is the sourness of romance ending, and which of these two flavors the film ends on is what determines the taste the story leaves in our mouth. Hint: it’s not sweet.
Note: This review contains spoilers.
Sweet and Sour opens with an overworked nurse DA-EUN (Chae Soo-bin) tending to a patient with Hepatitis B. JANG-HYUK (Lee Woo-je) is your token chubby, uncool, and completely smitten guy — so cute and innocent that you can’t help but love him. Nor can you blame him for crushing on Da-eun, since she’s warm, sweet, and just the right amount of weird to be interesting.
She gobbles his hospital food, takes a quick nap behind the curtain around his bed, and blames him when she’s caught smoking in the stairwell. When Jang-hyuk is discharged, the two stay connected and soon, are dating.
Their romance is a little bit cute, but mostly it borders on not-cute, because there’s the lingering feeling that there’s something not right about their story. It feels almost tangential, but it’s hard to figure out why.
It’s not until Da-eun invites Jang-hyuk on a trip to Jeju that we get what seems to be part two of the story. Jang-hyuk is running towards her at the airport in their new couple sneakers, promising to lose weight and be awesome… and then we transition actors to Jang Ki-yong, presumably playing Jang-hyuk with a lot of weight off and the hotness factor up a few notches. It’s a physical transformation that’s only a tier or so below the infamous one in An Empress’s Dignity, and it makes me equally confused.
We continue to follow these two and their relationship, lingering on them some time in the future, when Jang-hyuk gets transferred from his Incheon office to a fancy position in Seoul. Here, he meets BO-YOUNG (Krystal), and it’s the beginning of the end.
The two start off at each other’s throats, but of course that’s just a veil thrown over their attraction. Jang-hyuk fights it as long as he’s able, but soon they become this hard-working pair of interns at work, together all day and half the night, putting in countless hours — and getting way too close.
It’s hard to say if Bo-young is the catalyst for change in the relationship between Jang-hyuk and Da-eun, or if that was bound to happen anyway, and she was just the excuse. But for every argument and lifeless moment between Jang-hyuk and Da-eun, there is a new, sparkly one between Jang-hyuk and Bo-young.
In Sweet and Sour, though, these sparkly moments of romance are not really the sort we are used to. They’re not the earnest, fateful moments we are so familiar with in dramas. Instead, they feel devoid of life, and maybe even a little matter-of-fact. Thus, the story already feel depressing in tone and message — and that’s even before the infidelity, abortion, and breakup.
Who is the person we are supposed to look to and feel with in this story? It might have been Jang-hyuk when the story began, but he’s so easily lured away from Da-eun, and so two-timey while his emotions are displacing from one woman to another, that it’s hard to enjoy this character.
Similarly, Bo-young is likeable in her weirdness (and I rather like Krystal here) — whether it’s being a total slob, lush, or just being shameless around him — but it’s hard to get behind her, too. After all, she knows he’s in a relationship, and knows he’s ditching plans with his girlfriend for drinks with her.
Is our heroine Da-eun, then? It seems like she might be, although it’s also hard to get behind her character too, but mostly because she’s a bit opaque. The story doesn’t let us see inside her much, until her messy breakup with Jang-hyuk reaches a sudden and heart-wrenching pitch. I mean, “I wish you didn’t give up on our baby,” has to be one of the saddest lines ever.
Despite connecting with the character of Da-eun here, it’s a bit hard to figure out what the heck Sweet and Sour is trying to say in terms of a statement on modern romance, and the story retains this strangely off-putting tone throughout.
It’s not until the ending that it makes sense why. And even then, it’s not completely clear, as the punchline is caught somewhere in between clumsy twist and clever reveal. (If you want to watch the movie and experience it for yourself, don’t read on — I’m about to unpack said ending twist in detail.)
The film’s punchline (and entire purpose, if you will) sits solely in its final nine minutes or so. Our hero seems to realize the error of his ways, and rushes back to the woman he abandoned with a ring in hand. Will this film end like so many others before it? Final airport reunion, confession, kiss? Well, yes and no. Our hero does rush off to the airport to reunite with Da-eun, who he learns is on her way to Jeju, but what he finds there is actually a more subversive twist than happy ending.
As he spots Da-eun on the sidewalk and runs towards her… someone else is doing the same. It’s his former (chubby) self in the same couple sneakers Da-eun gifted him. My thought process here: Oh, okay, the film is trying to draw a parallel and show that their relationship is coming full circle, with the past and present versions of Jang-hyuk present in this scene. But my initial thought was wrong.
We’re not actually seeing two timelines play out side-by-side in this ending sequence — instead, what we have is a subversive (and confusing!) twist. We thought Lee Woo-je and Jang Ki-yong were playing the same role. Or, we were led to believe they were, through the film’s editing, as the story leaned into our assumption that Jang Ki-yong was the spiffed up version of the guy from the hospital.
What the film tries to reveal here, though, is that they are two very different guys (who coincidentally have very similar names). As this ending sequence plays out, we see that Da-eun actually met the Jang Ki-yong (Jang Hyuk) character over a year ago, also when he was at the hospital, and they began to date afterwards. Then, mere months ago she met the Lee Woo-je (Lee Jang-hyuk) character, and the same thing happened.
The editing tries to convince us that what we thought was Da-eun being all cute and quirky with Lee Jang-hyuk early on, was actually Da-eun in the midst of her failing relationship with Jang Hyuk, and dealing with her surprise pregnancy. In other words, she was cheating on him, while he was cheating on her with Bo-young.
I can appreciate what the film is trying to do here, tricking us with a story that seemed linear but was actually concurrent — but the problem is that this twist doesn’t work as well as it should. What was supposed to be clever actually felt clumsy, and I felt more jerked around and confused than I did caught in the goosebumps of a really well-executed twist.
The ending that Sweet and Sour chose left much to be desired. It also leaves quite the sour aftertaste — sour not only because it wasn’t able to land its own punchline, but sour because the final message is basically this: two people’s relationship eroded over time and they both got involved with others while they were still together. If that combination of poor execution and nihilistic messaging doesn’t bum you out, you’re a better person than I.
The sour aftertaste doesn’t subside quickly either, and I found myself searching for a better note to end on. Was it that cheater Jang Hyuk got what he deserved when the woman he loved/abandoned chose a devoted puppy instead of him? Was it that Da-eun was afraid to be alone even after her long-term relationship had just ended so she pounced on someone who was smitten with her? Or was it that she was seeking comfort from him after her abortion and breakup? Maybe it was just a statement on post-modern relationships.
While any or some of these reasons might make sense from an analytical standpoint, none of them give me a better sense of why I watched this movie, or what I’m supposed to take from it. And so, Sweet and Sour seems a film that was actually not interested in sweet at all. Instead, it focuses on the sour, after luring us in with the sweet.
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