During the Japanese Occupation of Korea, So-yool (played by Han Hyo-joo) and Yeon-hee (played by Chun Woo-hee) are friends raised together as proper gisaengs, inheritors to Korea's traditional musical culture. The prospects of the young women take a radical turn in 1943, when they meet Yoon-woo (played by Yoo Yeon-seok), an aspiring songwriter who wishes to break the yoke of Japanese oppression by using music, as a weapon.
At first this plot trajectory is mostly coherent. But in broad perspective very little of "Love, Lies" makes much logical sense. It's true that gisaengs were inheritors of a strong musical tradition. At the same time, as performers or courtesans or whatever, gisaengs had very low social status. Romanticized as they are today no one in 1943 would have seen them as the cultural defenders of anything. That's the main reason why they're not around anymore- it's not really the fault of the Japanese.
Though the Japanese are the clear villains their villainy itself is not clearly defined. They see the heroines as sex objects in addition to talented musical performers, which almost seems like a contemporary criticism of talent agencies except that talent agents don't generally wear military uniforms or carry guns. While that much isn't relevant initially, once the story takes a more violent turn, well, the metaphor is mostly ruined. Even from the nationalist angle the Japanese never seem all that threatened by Yoon-woo's plan, ultimately being motivated by other factors to start burning things.
The only particularly well-developed story point is the love triangle between So-yool, Yeon-hee, and Yoon-woo. Although the plot doesn't progress all that convincingly, that much is still a pretty straightforward narrative about how poor choices can lead to tragic endings. When we finally hear the actual song "Love, Lies" near the end, it rather neatly encapsulates the contradiction between...well, loves and lies pretty much. It's not deep, but it's there.
What makes "Love, Lies" such a disappointment is that with this setting and with this cast, it could have done so much more. Observe the absolutely gorgeous period costumes, as well as the cinematography. I liked the music too, nestled as it is in that queer zone between what we in the present day hear as classic and modern melodies. There have been lots of colonial era Korean films lately, yet none of them can match "Love, Lies" in sheer vibrancy of color and life. The movie is a demonstration of how music and passion can bring great light to even the darkest era.
Oddly enough it's actually ambition which proves to be the film's greatest downfall. Much like last year's "C'est Si Bon", "Love, Lies" excels in small focus giving us a glimpse of a bygone era and its music, leaving the story as simply another decoration. But also like "C'est Si Bon", "Love, Lies" makes the mistake of trying to turn Han Hyo-joo into the heroine of a tragic love story when really, she's much better playing the girl next door at the wrong end of some career decisions. Powerful production strengths notwithstanding, I can't recommend "Love, Lies".
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 email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Love, Lies""
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