Feature Narrative Reviews

Pretty Men: My Bittersweet Family (2021) – 2 stars

Director: Kim Jung Wook

Writer: Lee Byoung Hyun

Cast: Shin Minjae, Lee Jinri, Park Hyeonsang, Hong Hanaim

Running time: 1hr 52mins

Every bit as long-winded as its ungainly title suggests, clocking in at 112 minutes, Pretty Men: My Bittersweet Family is a little stretched for a comedy. An aimless plot, filled with disconnected asides can often be overlooked for films of this genre – but that usually hinges on just how much the movie makes us laugh. The problem here is while it takes just under two hours to conclude, Pretty Men it is still frustratingly light on relatable characters, or jokes.

The story centres on Ji Seong (Shin Minjae), a bumbling 40-year-old divorcee, whose family detests him. He needs to embody relatable traits which we can identify with, before learning from them, to help us feel a vicarious sense of warmth and closure in the end. The first half of the film seems aimed at setting him up as a pitiful character – the part of our personas when we are too polite to say no. He is too innocent to function in a confrontational world – and has gained the ire of his ‘loved ones’ as a result. In another film, this would be how you set up a humorous character arc, as he learns to stand up for himself – and in the process prompts his family to take a long hard look at the way they treated him.

Unfortunately, writer Lee Byoung Hyun botches this by establishing early on that our protagonist is every part as creepy and crooked as he makes out his relatives to be. Ji Seong doesn’t work as the charmingly oblivious archetype because he isn’t happy-go-lucky – when things go ‘wrong,’ he instantly collapses into incel-style tantrums.

His ex-wife has left him for a younger, more confident man – and when his attempts to reach out to her are rebuffed, the polite veneer dissolves into allegations that his replacement “has STIs and HIV!” Meanwhile, when Ji Seong’s 17-year-old daughter is seen in public with a suitor, he clutches his chest, before begging her not to “play easy to get,” as he “can’t forgive that kind of behaviour.” Wacky music plays in the background on both occasions – as though something innately hilarious is being discussed.

Then there’s Ji Seong’s father, who is a complicated character to put it very generously. He has done a great deal more to harm Ji Seong – and the broader community – than the other two; but is treated with far more forgiveness. He has run up gambling debts with a local loan shark – something which gets his son beaten and threatened – while having attacked and assaulted various members of the neighbourhood himself.

In one of the film’s few ‘jokes’, Ji Seong goes looking for his father at the local senior centre. One of the other old men abruptly states, “When I see him, I’ll kill him. I hope you understand, he raped my girlfriend… He’s garbage that can’t be recycled.” A spluttering Ji Seong responds to this shocking allegation with, “Don’t hate him so much, he actually recycles quite well.

Now, this kind of humour could work in a very different context – but it would walk a tightrope which director Kim Jung Wook has already haplessly tumbled from. Ji Seong’s naïve determination to see the best in his father would be appropriate if it came from the mouth of a character who hadn’t already approached the women in his life with such cynical disdain, and if it were used to help demonstrate his becoming more assertive later on.

If he were an ‘innocent’ who is somehow unable to see other people’s flaws, to the extent they would take advantage of it, it would still be appalling – but it could also serve as a valid mechanism by which to measure his later transition into a mature adult who knows where to draw the lines. This is flubbed on both levels – as alongside his troubling views surrounding women, the ‘mature’ Ji Seong still ultimately forgives and rescues his father in the film’s climax. His verbally abusive, rapist father, who burdened him with debt to violent mobsters.

Whether you make it far enough to see just how poorly this character arc is executed is another thing altogether though. It comes after we have already been subjected to what feels like two years – never mind two hours – of romance sub-plots with Il Yeong (Lee Jinri). She is a bank employee, who it transpires has survived an abusive relationship, and helps Ji Seong overcome a phobia of sex and faeces, before divulging that she secretly had a son and an alcohol problem. Also, they both slap Ji Seong’s daughter in the face for making a scene at a diner, before he also slaps Il Yeong in the face, further confusing who is supposed to be ‘innocent’, who is standing up for themselves, and who is or is not the ‘bad guy’.

It’s all too much. And the jumpiness of Lee Byoung Hyun’s script is only underscored by some frenetic YouTube editing on Kim Jung Wook’s watch. Adding jump-cuts into the fray only serves to make various lines in pivotal scenes feel like after-thoughts, crowbarred in to help make upcoming plot-lines make some kind of sense. For example, Ji Seong’s father berates him from the back seat of his car – and seems to teleport from one side of the seat to the other, speaking one second about his gambling habit, and another about how he wishes Ji Seong had died instead of his mother in that accident. Because without that line, the inevitable flashback of that accident 90 minutes later, after it hasn’t been referenced again, won’t make any sense.

Along with the choppy editing, and the horrendously inappropriate soundtracking, the unimaginative framing of shots further serves to put your brain to sleep. Yes, it was impressive that a feature film could be made on an iPhone 10 years ago – but a clear image from that apparatus alone is no longer enough. We need more than flat, bland shots. And with exposition delivered in such a deranged and unpredictable way, it is not uncommon to suddenly find yourself in uncharted territory.

The one saving grace from a technical perspective is the acting. Every person on screen does exactly what is asked of them. When we are supposed to hate them, they give us some incredibly effective performances. When we are supposed to find them sympathetic in their incompetence, they are emotionally vulnerable or visually confounded by the unfolding situation. When those modes of delivery are deployed, and to what ends, was not determined by the actors – so the contradictory and unsatisfying way their performances are used shouldn’t be used to belittle their ability as performers.

Tying this all together into a coherent plot was never going to be satisfying. But comedy films often cover such a ridiculously huge amount of terrain. They do so because they can use the shortcomings of characters to comic effect, before using those incidents as teachable moments from which they progress. Very little of that occurs in Pretty Men, and it frequently comes across as a mean-spirited and meandering mess as a result.

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