"Why me? Why did you want to paint me? I've been curious from the very beginning.
I mean, I'm not that pretty... Be honest, is this some kind of joke?"
Youn-seo (Kim Hye-na) is all out of hope. Working in a coffee shop/café while studying, she increasingly feels that everything is conspiring against her; with each and every day seemingly bringing a fresh heartache, torment, accusation or infringement to leave her yet again in tears, head in hands, and desperately searching for a reason to even carry on.
Waiting for the bus home from work one evening, she is approached by a man she has seen watching her in the coffee shop on several occasions. Politely introducing himself as Tae-in (Lee Sun-ho), he tells her that he is a painter and without further ado asks her to model for him. Though initially uncomfortable with the idea and unsure of Tae-in's true motivations, Youn-seo soon acquiesces and as their painting/modelling sessions get underway and gradually increase in frequency the two inevitably begin a sexual relationship.
However, no sooner does Youn-seo begin to hope that her life may finally have turned a corner than Tae-in receives a phone call from his ex-girlfriend Seung-hee with news that threatens to derail the very love and happiness for which Youn-seo has waited so long...
If there has ever been a time in your life where successive events have inexplicably come together in succession more perfectly than you could have hoped or planned, it's equally likely that you'll also be all too familiar with periods during which life itself somehow seems to be working against you. Within the first ten minutes of Melo, we are left in no doubt whatsoever that Youn-seo is deeply mired in the latter of these categories: She has an argument about her family with her sister; she's accused, in all but name, of having stolen money at work; she's continually kept from sleeping by the noise of her neighbours having loud, incessant sex; and just when she thinks things couldn't get any worse her boyfriend forces himself on her sexually, so violently that she bleeds on the bed sheets and has difficulty even standing on the bus the following day. In fact, Youn-seo has reached such a low ebb that she can do little but suffer in silence and retreat yet further from the world that is treating her so harshly.
It is at this point that Tae-in comes into Youn-seo's life but while she is at an utter loss to explain, or even begin to understand, why he is interested in having her as his model, the respectful attention he lavishes on her from their very first meeting is impossible for her to ignore or decline. However, though the couple's subsequent burgeoning love affair initially makes Youn-seo happier than she could ever have dreamed, she cannot escape the fear that life could so easily turn against her once again at any time and, as such, she takes it upon herself to personally deal with every situation she perceives as a threat to her position as Tae-in's one and only true love.
Sadly, her increasingly paranoid actions - largely caused by her continuing lack of self-esteem - serve only as a self-fulfilling prophecy of the very issues she's trying to negate; driving her ever-closer to a point of no return.
With Melo detailing its twisted tale almost exclusively from Youn-seo's perspective, it is vital that viewers are made fully aware of her perceptions, assumptions and ongoing thought processes throughout. In doing so, director Roy Lee deftly ensures that his direction and camera work accent every look, stare, passing glance and subtle facial expression of the main character to speak absolute volumes, often without a word needing to be physically uttered. It must be said that there is also a certain amount of exposition present but thankfully it never appears particularly forced or extraneous, even if it isn't quite as nuanced as the numerous aforementioned visual 'statements'.
Of course, in a story of love, sex, trust (or the lack thereof) with even elements of betrayal present, it almost goes without saying that the sexual content present in Melo is fairly graphically explicit but here too less is more and especially considering the fact that an increasing number of Korean films in recent years have rather overplayed the 'sex' card to be deemed 'erotic' - perhaps even striving to be seen as controversial (more often than not inadvertently negating the very chances of that being the case, in the process) - Roy Lee's astute decision to keep individual sex scenes succinct, rapidly cutting between the act itself and the intimate framing of character expressions and reactions, serves to increase the eroticism of each to the nth degree.
Not only that, but throughout Melo viewers are repeatedly shown sexually explicit, increasingly vicious and brutally violent imagery that suddenly turns out to be a combination of nightmares and wishful thinking imagined by Youn-seo; thereby adding to the overall unpredictability of proceedings at the same time as perfectly underlining her increasingly fractured state of mind.
In fact, the only segment in Melo that, to my mind, really doesn't work is a montage scene taking place shortly after Youn-seo and Tae-in's love affair gets underway. While it's clear that the aim was to show Youn-seo's happiness and the couple's ever-growing love for each other, the featuring of such a standard, overused sequence - a virtual clone of those found in a plethora of romances from Korea and almost any other culture you care to name - does nothing but a disservice to the remainder of Melo; feeling rather contrived, out of place and, dare I say, somewhat lazy especially considering the nuanced darkness of the rest of the narrative.
The music used to accompany the montage scene underlines this yet further: Throughout the rest of the film, in its entirety, the musical soundtrack is minimal with only piano and cello used briefly at points where Youn-seo's life undergoes a major change; often dark, sometimes balancing between comforting and claustrophobic, but always beautifully understated. However, during this montage scene suddenly we have a three-minute romantic pop song playing, reaching a crescendo in time with imagery of Youn-seo and Tae-in laughing and inseparable on screen, but no sooner does the music fade away than aurally minimal darkness returns making the previous segment feel all the more like an out of place music video in the midst of serious cinema.
Thankfully, the remainder of Melo is narratively strong enough to allow viewers to set this rather clunky scene aside and reinvest in the ongoing story, at least until the tale concludes and the credits roll.
I've already mentioned that Melo is a dark tale of love, trust, sex and betrayal but that description doesn't in fact tell the whole story. For ultimately Melo is as much, if not more so, a dissection of selfishness and self-perception that details the twisted path down which personal need placed above all else can ultimately lead.
With Melo's narrative focusing on the character of Youn-seo far above that of Tae-in, it is largely down to Kim Hye-na to convey both believability and elicit viewer empathy with her performance. This she does with seeming ease throughout and the success with which she portrays her character's thoughts, hopes and fears with the aforementioned deliberately understated looks and tiny facial expressions adds a great deal to the film as a whole.
Lee Sun-ho gives an accomplished performance as Tae-in but he never really holds a candle to Kim Hye-na, though considering the fact that his character is given far less depth his portrayal certainly doesn't warrant any particular criticism.
Cast: Kim Hye-na, Lee Sun-ho
Duration: 119mins (approx.)
While 'Melo' is on the surface a dark tale of love, sex and trust (or the lack thereof), it also serves as a dissection of selfishness and self-perception; ultimately detailing the twisted path down which personal need placed above all else can lead.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Film Council, KoBiz and Mirovision Inc. for allowing me to watch and rewatch 'Melo' for the purposes of this review.