"I knew you liked me... it was obvious. You even kissed me while I was sleeping. That was my first kiss."
Architect Seung-min (Eom Tae-woong) is set to move to the United States following his forthcoming marriage to Eun-chae (Ko Joon-hee). On being visited at his place of work by Seo-yeun (Ha Ga-in) - a woman he doesn't recognise - he is rendered virtually speechless by her opening statement of "Long time no see. How have you been?"
Surprised and even slightly offended that he has seemingly forgotten her so easily, Soo-yeun explains that they were close friends in their first year of college when they took the Architecture 101 class together; reminding him that he had promised to build her a house and claiming that is the only reason for her visit.
After some discussion - or, more accurately, bickering - they finally agree that Seung-min will renovate the home of Seo-yeun's father on Jeju Island but as work begins on the architectural designs, memories of the past flood Seung-min's mind and his long-forgotten feelings for Seo-yeun - his first love - quickly threaten to de-rail not only his present-day life but also his plans for the future...
First love... Whether a beautiful, picture-perfect romance between soul mates or an unrequited and ultimately painful desire and longing for a love that could never be, our first love nonetheless plays a large part in shaping not only our future attitudes to relationships and the resultant love choices we make throughout our lives but also even the people we ultimately become, and as it is for every single one of us (whether we admit it or not), so it is for Seung-min:
No matter that he is well on the way to building a life and a future with Eun-chae, his remembered feelings for the Seo-yeun of his youth resolutely refuse to stay in the past; leaving him every bit as lost as he was all those years ago in his first year of college when he was desperate to show the girl of his dreams how heartbreakingly in love with her he really was.
However, memories are by their very nature hugely subjective and as we are gradually shown (in flashback) Seung-min and Seo-yeun's relationship in their youth - from their first meeting through their blossoming friendship to their ultimate parting of ways - we discover that Seung-min's past assumptions and present-day recollections may not have been as clear-cut or obvious as he always believed; tinged as they were, and are, with self-protective negativity. Thus, the question of whether things would, perhaps, have turned out differently if he had shown greater conviction in the "meant to be" nature of his wanted love affair with Seo-yeun is poignantly and increasingly raised throughout Architecture 101.
So, how does the eventual realisation of that fact affect Seung-min and Seo-yeun's present-day relationship, and/or their lives and futures? Well, that is, in effect, the catalyst that drives the story inextricably to its ultimate conclusion...
Almost anyone who takes more than a passing interest in Korean Cinema will likely search out classic examples of note-worthy films from, and subsequent to, the emergence of the New Korean Cinema wave that began in the late 90s. On doing so, they will find a veritable plethora of cinematic offerings detailing stories of first love; past scars; lovers kept apart by seemingly insurmountable barriers; present-day hard-heartedness hiding wounded souls and even numerous instances of narratives using flashback sequences to play out past and present character arcs in parallel. Though Architecture 101 positively screams all of the above, and while it is not beyond a reasonable assumption that the film's plotline was deliberately constructed to fit these classic underlying ideas, whether the story of Seung-min and Seo-yeun's present interactions re-awakening memories of love from their youth is seen as a legitimate and worthy addition to those aforementioned archetypal tales or simply a derivation is ultimately up to each individual viewer to decide for him/herself.
Personally, I feel the former is the case and that Architecture 101 manages to stand on its own two feet in spite of, or even partly because of, its decision to detail an already tried and tested story of first love and its courage in using such often seen plot elements but twisting them ever so slightly in an attempt to bring something fresh to its narrative.
It could even be said that the house building (or, if we take comparisons to the extreme, even the piano playing) elements of proceedings ape more than one of perhaps the most famous of Korean romance melodramas but though these illustrious predecessors will very likely be brought to mind (I for one could be heard to say "Oh, that's The Classic... that's A Moment To Remember... that's..." etc etc), to my mind at least, their (assumed) presence almost serves to actually add to the overall "classic" feel of the narrative giving a gentle - initial - familiarity to the story, largely without being detrimental.
In fact, Architecture 101 uses viewer knowledge of these many well known films to bring somewhat unpredictable elements into play on more than one occasion; even referencing ideas to which viewers will "know" the outcome, only to then subtly undercut them and move in a slightly more original direction. .
As far as the main character arcs are concerned, from the very first present-day interactions between Seung-min and Seo-yeun, their constant bickering speaks clearly of the one-time depth of their relationship and while (college) Seung-min's growing love for Seo-yeun is blatantly obvious from the earliest of the flashback segments, Seo-yeun's innermost feelings both in the past and present remain somewhat more of a mystery to the audience for the majority of the film's running time - just as they are, and have been, to Seung-min.
This deliberate clouding is helped greatly by the decision to show proceedings largely from Seung-min's perspective (especially in sequences set in the past) and, as a result, when Seo-yeun's true feelings are finally revealed, their impact is all the greater; allowing the setting up of the final raft of exquisitely beautiful moments.
While Architecture 101 is classically gorgeous in content and narrative, its beauty is multiplied to the nth degree by its sumptuous visuals: The fact that a great deal of the present-day storyline takes place in the idyllic setting of Jeju Island makes jaw-dropping vistas easy to come by; complimenting proceedings to a tee and astute choices of locations to accompany Seung-min and Seo-yeun's burgeoning love in the past make those scenes almost equally as striking, albeit for different reasons.
Points should also be given for the expertly placed and often gently humorous era-specific references from the past - the college boys' excitement at a 1Gb computer hard drive ("You could never use 1Gb in your whole life"); Seung-min placing a CD on a record turntable; Seo-yeun and Seung-min using electronic pagers etc - and the gentle humour present in conversational dialogue throughout (especially in the flashback sequences, often centering on Seung-min being given advice on love by his closest friend Nap-tteuk-i, played by Jo Jeong-seok) ensures that Architecture 101 will bring a smile to the lips at the same time as being a feast for the eyes, mind and heart... from gentle start to thought-provoking finish.
Finally, a classically minimal - but stunning nonetheless - musical score completes the picture, so to speak, and the repeated use of a specific CD track throughout both storyline and soundtrack allows for a deeply touching narrative coda to succeed to full effect.
The entire main cast give accomplished performances throughout Architecture 101.
On first viewing, the portrayals of Seung-min and Seo-yeun in their youth, played by Lee Je-hoon and Suzy (best known for being a member of K-pop group Miss A) respectively, stand out as the most nuanced - especially in the case of Suzy's stunning, understated performance - and it was only during a subsequent viewing, for the purpose of writing this review, that the layers inherent to Han Ga-in's portrayal of present-day Seo-yeun became apparent.
All in all, the talents and chemistry of the ensemble cast make Architecture 101 even more genuinely affecting than would otherwise have been the case and allow for a huge amount of viewer empathy to be created.
Cast (Actor... Character):
Ha Ga-in... Seo-yeun (present-day)
Suzy... Seo-yeun (in the past)
Eom Tae-woong... Seung-min (present-day)
Lee Je-hoon... Seung-min (in the past)
Jo Jeong-seok... Nap-tteuk-i (Seung-min's closest school friend)
Ko Joon-hee... Eun-chae (Seung-min's fiancé)
While Architecture 101 covers territory similar to that seen in a plethora of incredibly well known Korean films it nonetheless manages to stand as a worthy addition to the romantic drama genre, rather than simply appearing as a derivation, as a result of the genuine beauty and believability of its gently affecting tale.
The DVD edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) Candle Media 2-Disc Limited Edition First Press version. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present. The picture is utterly exemplary and compliments the beautiful visuals perfectly.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 and both it and the musical score are well balanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
• Director: Lee Yong-joo
• Format: NTSC, Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
• Subtitles: English/Korean
• Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1
• Region: Region 3
• Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
• Number of discs: 2
• Classification: 12 (Korean Film Classification)
• Studio: Candle Media
• Run Time: 114 minutes (approx.)