Mixing genres as easily as aspect ratios, Killing Romance gives a whirlwind tour of the largely toxic side of Korean culture. Opening this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, the film blends K-pop, animation, reality TV, and Internet memes to show how celebrity Yeo-rae Hwang rescues herself from a loveless marriage to billionaire Jonathan Na.

Framed as a fairy tale, Killing Romance opens with a biography of Yeo-rae (played by singer Lee Hanee), from her days shilling soda and parkas to her ill-fated movie career. After brutal reviews of her performance in “the most expensive movie ever made,” she flees Korea for the South Pacific island of Qualla. There she falls for Na (Parasite star Lee Sun-kyun), a control freak who ends up imprisoning Yeo-rae in a lavish mansion back in Korea. Fortunately, superfan and failed student Bum-woo (Gong Myung) lives next door. He is more than eager to plot Na’s demise with Yeo-rae. Googling “the perfect crime” and “accidental death” as research, Bum-woo comes up with increasingly ludicrous schemes: death by paper airplane, poison with 37 liters of carrot juice, death in the “Hot as Hell Sauna.” 

Director Lee Won-suk is bursting with ideas, everything from bad puns to talking ostriches. Outtakes from a “Hot as Hell Sauna” commercial show actors passing out from heat exhaustion. (The commercial itself is a blast, all bouncing graphics, tinkling music, and over-the-top claims for the health benefits of sitting in what looks like an oversized, coal-fired pizza oven.) Fizzy music fills the soundtrack. Bum-woo and his friends often break into Yeo-rae’s theme song: “I’m gonna be a bad, bad girl,” adapted from Rain’s old pop hit “Rainism.” 

Not every joke clicks, but the ratio of good to bad is fairly high, especially when Lee casts his eye on consumerism. The leads wear ghastly clothes, drive absurd cars, and drink overpriced liquors because they’re constantly being told to by billboards, radio ads, and TV commercials. You might get a kick from two nurses dressed like the twins in The Shining, or a montage that expands a story pitch for an atrocious screenplay called Becoming a Star. Hanee shows off her background in musical theater in what becomes a fully choreographed show tune from the script.

On the other hand, some sequences flag quickly. Lee strains to top himself, and at times it feels as if he is just recycling material. A long bit where Yeo-rae and Bum-woo try to send Na into anaphylactic shock leads to repetitive gags about bowls of bean stew. (Yeo-rae offers nonsensical advice like, “The taste of peanuts is undetectable if you add in basil.”) 

The performers are all keyed into Lee’s offbeat perspective. Lee Hanee throws herself into her role, balancing bloodthirsty and innocent with aplomb. Lee Sun-kyun is the standout in the cast, relishing his evil designs and weirdly accented English catchphrases. “It’s gooood!” he drawls, no matter how bloody the situation. (He also has an extensive collection of fake mustaches.)

Like too many movies today, the look and tone of Killing Romance is heavily indebted to Wes Anderson. Lee favors formal, medium-shot compositions that highlight the artifice of his sets, like Bum-woo’s triangular attic bedroom lined with bookcases. At times it feels as if Lee is substituting references for storytelling.

Lee’s third feature, Killing Romance opened to dismal box-office returns in April, only to gain a cult in the following weeks. In fact, it’s one of the few successful theatrical releases in South Korea this year. (The other is Ma Dong-seok’s expert franchise entry The Roundup: No Way Out.) Fans gravitated as much to Lee’s candy-colored palette and manic editing as to the film’s grab-bag of pop hits and TV commercials. But you don’t have to be Korean to appreciate the sharp wit on display here.

Killing Romance opened the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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