Woomukbaemi (pronounced “Woo-mook-beh-mee”) is a fictional town located on the outskirts of Seoul. A working class community, it marks the nebulous border region where the city turns into the countryside. When Il-do moves there with his wife to work in a small sewing factory that makes skirts, it is a step down for him on the social ladder, but for economic reasons he has no choice.
Il-do is a sweet talker, but his bravado masks a fundamental insecurity. At the factory he is seated next to Gong-rae, a young woman who is often beaten by her husband. He flirts openly with her, and since they are the only two young people among the older women working in the factory, a sort of camaraderie grows between them. But before long, their playful banter takes a more serious turn. Neither one knows exactly what they are getting into, but one night they take a train into Seoul and check into a motel.
It’s easier to see than to explain what makes Lovers in Woomukbaemi such a remarkable film. The plot is fairly straightforward, and on the surface at least, it doesn’t tackle any weighty social issues. Of all the works by maverick director Jang Sun-woo, this is the most realist and conventional in its presentation. Yet there is a vitality and dynamism to this work that distinguishes it from other films of that era. Every moment projected onto the screen feels bracingly alive.
A big part of this is due to inspired characterization and great acting performances by the two leads, as well as a fearsome turn by Yoo Hae-ri as Il-do’s wife. The emotions in the film run hot. Yet the overarching perspective is that of light humor and sympathetic understanding. Striking the right tone in this work could not have been easy, but Jang Sun-woo strikes a perfect balance, making it one of Korean cinema’s all-time classics.