In the present day, In-yeong (played by Yoon Jin-seo) and Yoon-jo (played by Kim Min-seo) catch up on life over coffee. As it turns out, the main immediate event of relevance for In-yeong has been her meetings with Hee-soo (played by Oh Ji-ho), who she has only ever met at the coffee shop. To avoid inspiring the wrath of In-yeong's husband Won-yeong (played by Lee Sun-ho), In-yeong and Hee-soo have agreed to only ever be "Coffee Mates", even as they drift further and further into an obvious emotional affair.
"Coffee Mates" takes the narrative format of a large number of vignettes. Don't worry- the story structure doesn't get too complicated, although the section where In-yeong tells Hee-soo how she first met Yoon-jo is a tad weird, given that context. But in most cases the actual content of the stories doesn't particularly matter. The first one is just a weird anecdote about this guy with strange theories about cola produced in different countries.
No, it's the act of storytelling itself that is therapeutic. Hee-soo and In-yeong mainly talk about how awkward experiences have given them strange ideas about how to relate to people. The emphasis is on the awkward- in narrative form, Hee-soo and In-yeong know that their past experiences were odd and should have been commented on at the time. Though obviously in the presence of significant emotional events, Hee-soo and In-yeong both knowingly demurred, letting those stories drift to an end with no natural conclusion. Then, absent any more material, the present day Hee-soo and In-yeong play games.
These games are just as strange as the stories- not in the sense of rules, but the outcomes, which play out in the form of increasingly aggressive anonymous behavior. While these adventures come off as fairly cute and quirky, the appeal is ultimately fairly limited. Much like In-yeong and Yoon-jo's relationship itself, these games are a way to interact with the world without actually interacting with it. What at first seems therapeutic and outgoing somehow manages to magnify their emotional repression.
Which makes sense. Consider this. Have you ever had a moment in your life where you knew you were unhappy, but didn't know what to do about it, so you just did something radically different from what you normally do? How often did this ever actually solve the unhappiness issue, as opposed to just creating a completely different problem that was even worse? Yet by the end, the overall experience is somewhat gratifying. A minor problem can just be ignored and left to fester. A major one forces action- hence why In-yeong's dialogue with Yoon-jo is ultimately surprisingly optimistic.
Oddly, for a movie that's focused pretty much entirely on talking, "Coffee Mates" is really mostly about how talking alone can't actually solve problems. Action is necessary. Empathy is necessary. Change is necessary. In-yeong and Hee-soo agree to the "Coffee Mates" idea rather than an actual affair because they value inertia for its own sake, without realizing that inertia is the very force they are all so desperate to overcome.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Coffee Mates""
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