Bae Ildo (Park Joong-hoon) is a tailor who runs away from his dead-end job at a shirt factory to another dead-end job at a sweatshop where he meets Gong-rye (Choi Myung-gil), a shy, unassuming woman with an abusive husband. Despite having a partner and child at home, Bae starts an affair with Gong-rye where both find solace from their partners. It is an awkward affair where they meet in greenhouses and go to restaurants and strip clubs. They seem to almost want to get caught as they make flimsy excuses to their spouses and even endure physical abuse from both of them for a relationship that offers very little for the harm that they undergo.
What is perhaps most striking about in A Short Love Affair (also known as The Lovers of Woomook-baemi) is an almost adamant refusal to make the main male protagonist sympathetic in any way. To put it lightly, Bae Ildo is a womanizing, arrogant asshole. His only redeeming quality is that he is good at his job as a tailor. In fact, it is at his job where he is the most comfortable. His co-workers are all women and he has a lighthearted camaraderie with them. He bonds with them and they make him one of the girls, gossiping and cracks ribald jokes and even tease him about his obvious interest in the married Gong-rye.
Yet Bae is not exactly a secretively sensitive flower who can only be himself when he is not around other men. He goes drinking with other men who casually engage in sexist talk. The relationship between him and Gong-rye is fairly one-sided. While he doesn’t force her necessarily to have an affair with him, he does most of the talking, and he takes more of an active role in assuring their infidelity, such as renting a hotel room to spend the night together. Frankly, Gong-rye is a bit of a cipher. She is very much a character defined by the men around her. She is an abused woman who finds companionship in someone who isn’t as different from her husband as would be healthy. There are some signs of her character when she refuses to immediately give into Bae’s advances. Interestingly, while Bae might be the aggressor, she is the one dictating the pace of the relationship.
Director Jang Sun-woo favors close shots that feature the actors prominently as is appropriate for an intimate character-driven drama like this one. Yet he also likes to pack his screens with side characters. Even if we don’t know all of Bae’s co-workers by name, we get a good sense of who they are just from random lines here and there. His frame is often bustling with life even in throwaway moments such as when the boss of the sweatshop invites both Bae and Gong-rye to drink after work. Both of them refuse, but when one of the older co-workers states offhand that she is free, he scolds her and tells her to clean up. She mutters something to the extent that if you’re old, you might as well be dead.
We see this toxic attitude towards women permeate nearly every scene, and it only becomes more apparent when the narrative focus shifts from Bae to his partner Sae-daek (Yoo Hyeri). Jang signifies this shift with a switch in voiceover. Whereas Bae’s voiceover, which dominated the first half of the film, is self-pitying, Sae-daek’s is righteously furious. We see flashbacks of when she was working at a hostess club. She treats Bae like a child, calling out the snacks that he is eating as something that children would like. She is up front about her intentions of running away with Bae in the first place so that she can have a secure and safe life. When she later catches him coming home late, she wrestles him to the ground. It is a disarmingly funny scene, and it is only more shocking because this is the first real indication we get of the huge chip on her shoulder she has against Bae and the pathetic life that he has given her.
Sae-daek also has no problem physically dominating him. When Love Affair focuses more on her, we get to see how much of an overgrown child Bae is. Even if we didn’t like Bae before when it was just him and Gong-rye, he only becomes more pathetic when the victims of his carelessness actually fight back. Sae-daek’s confrontation of both partners is quite public. Her reactions would appear quite comic if you were unfamiliar with Korean culture, but her fury is more typical of Korean women than the racist stereotype of the submissive, delicate flowers that White people (men in particular) seem to think characterizes Asian women. When she throws herself in front of Bae’s parents, we see Bae being struck by his father as punishment. This is one of many indications that, as despicable as Bae and his actions are, they are the result of a long cycle of patriarchy that enforces harmful masculine traits and vilifies men.
Jang Sun-woo was already over 40 years old by the time the Korean New Wave started changing Korean cinema into a rising cultural and global power. The more famous Korean directors such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho were much younger than he was. Yet for a more seasoned director, he never made the same movie twice. His works ranged from simple, stripped-down dramas such as A Short Love Affair and The Road to the Racetrack to the harshly experimental Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie. Even the movie that ended his career, Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, was a Matrix ripoff but not without some distinct artistic touches. There is not much his films have in common except for perhaps a harsh look at Korean society and patriarchy as well as some relatively frank portrayals of sexual behavior and dialogue. Younger Korean directors have admitted his influence on them, especially in how honestly he talked about unseemly human behavior.
Perhaps the director to best compare Jang Sun-woo to would be Mike Leigh, who similarly focused on working-class characters who would often live lives of quiet desperation as a result of their economic circumstances. Yet simply comparing Jang to a Western director is doing him a disservice, since his brand of daring and excoriating filmmaking busted open doors for younger directors to start breaking away from conservative values instituted by decades of moralistic dictatorships.