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I originally missed my chance at catching Rules of Dating during its trip around the US back in 2005-2006 and copies of the DVD went out of print shortly thereafter. I think part of the problem was that the film was marketed as a romantic comedy with some light sexual undertones, which didn't really interest me at the time. However, that is not what this film really is and when I later saw a few more favorable (even if still mixed) reviews of the film, I wanted to check it out, but by then the film had vanished from print. Recently, the film got an additional printing and turned out to be a bargain, so I grabbed it while I could and I have to say I'm glad that I did. While it's problematic, I found Rules of Dating to have a surprising amount of thought put into it and it defies traditional conventions of the romance drama.
The film actually opens with Lee Yurim (Park Haeil), a teacher at a middle school or high school, making an overtly sexual remark to Choi Hong (Kang Hyejung) while sitting on a bench in front of the school. This slice is clearly taken out of time with the rest of the film, which proceeds linearly from there. Choi is a new student teacher assigned to Lee and Lee, although he has a girlfriend of six years and Choi has a fiancé, he propositions her for sex and continues to badger her in an attempt to get physically intimate. Choi, clearly reserved, takes a quiet passive approach to dealing with his advances and things get more entangled there, as we learn more about why Choi is a 27-year old student teacher.
Okay, first of all, Lee Yurim is a slimebag and the film doesn't really hold bag in how much of a slimebag he is. He does stuff to Choi that is pretty close to unforgivable, especially in the first half of the film. He's dishonest, manipulative, coercive and abusive, but the film doesn't stop there and, surprisingly humanizes him as the film progresses. This is somewhat problematic because the film (and Choi) almost seems to forgive his misdeeds, even though it doesn't let him be a karma houdini outright. The film is likewise complicated with Choi and Lee's strange relationship as the power dynamic fluctuate as the two become more emotionally entangled. It's this factor that makes the story much more complex, and consequently, more interesting. It's that Lee can't be painted as purely a villain, nor Choi as merely a victim that keeps the story interesting as well as watching the drama that erupts from their emotional development.
The film has a lot of handheld shots, which seemed to be in vogue during the mid-2000s in Korean filmmaking, which works in some scenes due to the uncertainty and underlying tension within them, but sometimes I felt like it was just a purely aesthetic decision that didn't add to storytelling in many other scenes. The production values are solid, as is typical for a mainstream-geared post-Korean New Wave film and Han Jaerim does a good job of keeping an eye on the storytelling, minus the handheld stuff mentioned above. However, with a film with characters as complex as Rules of Dating, a lot rests on the shoulders of the actors and Park and Kang breathe a lot of life into their characters. Park plays the slimebag Lee excellently, convincingly showing his self-serving manipulation that Lee believes himself in, but yet maintains just enough of his humanity in the performance that it doesn't slip into farcical territory. Kang, on the other hand, had to play mouse for much of the film, which admittedly isn't too hard, but once her character starts opening up, she really captures her thawing well.
I end up with mixed feelings about this film, because of Lee's sexually harassing character and how Choi eventually somewhat accepts him (not a good message, folks!). At the same time, I appreciate how the film paints neither character with broad strokes and honestly develops the characters and their strange relationship. Backed by strong performances, I can say that Rules of Dating is a genuinely interesting film, even if the story might be conveying a problematic message. As such, it might be an interesting film for some to check out, but I don't think it's for everyone, especially for the polemically minded. 7/10.