Architect Lee Seung Min has just had an all-nighter at his office when he gets a surprise visit from an old friend. A woman looks around his office, sees him, smiles and asks how he is doing. Seung Min stares a little absent-mindedly before asking who the woman is. The woman turns out to be Yang Seo Yeong, whom he met years ago in university, during an Introduction to Architecture (the literal translation of the movie’s Korean title) class that Seung Min, as an architecture major, enrolled in. Now both of them are in their 30s, reunited once again after going their separate ways about fifteen years ago. Seo Yeong has an old property on the Jeju island that she wants to get renovated and she thinks Seung Min should do it. Although unsure at first for Seung Min has never designed for houses previously, he agrees to do it in the end.
The movie moves back and forth between the present-day story of Seung Min helping Seo Yeong renovate her house and their story when they first met during their first year in college. Seo Yeong was a music major at that time, yet she signed up for the Introduction to Architecture class. Seung Min was helplessly attracted to Seo Yeong, and it turned out that both of them lived in Jongneung, an area north of the Han river. Because of their daily commute and close neighborhoods, they started to get closer to each other.
Despite its success at the Korean box office (with over 4 million admissions), I was never really interested in seeing this movie. It looks like your everyday Korean melodrama, it stars one female K-pop star, and it’s probably filled with cuteness and candies and bubblegum. So naturally, it came as a surprise when the movie turned out to be… better. A lot better. By reading the premise, you can already guess what comes up next, it’s not a new formula for melodramas after all. Two people fall in love in college, somehow drift apart, meet again in the future, old love sparks again. And yes, in a way, that’s what the movie is mainly about. But it is packaged in such a way that manages to set itself apart and escape from the expected cliché.
The young characters’ story is set in the early 1990s, and the fact that viewers find it nostalgic just makes me realize even more how old we’ve become. Nowadays we don’t have to get way back to the 80’s or 70’s anymore, the 90’s is already considered ‘vintage’. Landline telephones, CD players, pagers and 1GB hard drives are all present in the movie, evoking the sentimentality of viewers. Director Lee Yong Ju himself also majored in architecture, and I love how he shows the cities so warmly. Be it buildings or traditional houses, an isolated bus stop or a café in Seoul, everything is shown in warm colors, indulging us even more in the whole mood of nostalgia.
The theme of first love is easily a go-to choice when it comes to romance movies. If it’s Korean romance movies, then there can be two possibilities, it could either be a loud romantic comedy (emphasize on the comedy), or it could be an all-out tearjerker. However, Architecture 101 doesn’t fall into either category. Yes, there are some hilarious moments, all provided by Nabdeukki, Seung Min’s best friend, a self-proclaimed woman expert who seems to stroll around the neighborhood aimlessly in his colorful shirts and baggy pants—strictly 90’s. And for some viewers, tears might be a possibility. I guess one of the reasons why this movie did well is that because a lot of people could relate to it. A lot of people can remember the feelings of falling in love for the first time, the agitation and anticipation, the naivety and the heartbreak. And also the curiosity that threatens to consume you more than a decade later, when you, like Seo Yeon, want to see that person again. Sometimes just to see how that person is doing, or sometimes, like Seo Yeon, hoping for more. The same things are felt by our characters as well, and with the way the movie smoothly alternates between the past and the present, we easily get attached to them. Seung Min’s naivety and hesitancy, Seo Yeong’s attraction to Seung Min’s classmate—an older student who comes from a rich family, which also makes us understand her older counterpart instantly, the choices she has made and the state of mind that she’s in when she meets Seung Min once again. In spite of the cliché premise, there is nothing cliché about the movie, no exaggerated romantic gestures by the characters, no character unnecessarily put to dramatize the storyline. Even the parents, both Yeo Seong’s father and Seung Min’s mother, play significant roles. The ending also reminds us that even though closures might be necessary, that doesn’t mean they can’t be awfully bitter.
If there’s one thing, probably the cast could have been better. Although overall the main four actors did a good job, I find Han Ga In to be a weakness. Suzy, on the other hand, did better than one could expect, especially remembering that she sings and dances for a living and that this is her first feature film. Sometimes I also find Uhm Tae Woong’s older character quite detached from his younger self, like they are two different characters. But I guess, people change..? Lee Je Hoon, of course, has impressed me beyond words in Bleak Night, and even though Seung Min can easily be overlooked as an easy role, Lee still managed to put weight and somehow makes the character more memorable, another addition to his flawless CV. The scene stealing character though, is Nabdeukki, played by Jo Jung Suk, a theatre actor who usually does musicals.
There’s one track that is played several times throughout the movie, and it’s the duet Exhibition’s Etude of Memory, which was released in 1994. One half of Exhibition is Kim Dong Ryul, a veteran singer-songwriter in the Korean music scene, and Kim was actually majoring in architecture engineering when he first started writing for the record. Go figure.
Note: The house on Jeju island was built for the movie, which then got demolished and rebuilt as a café and gallery, called Seo Yeon’s House. It opened on March 27, 2013. Smart gesture there, people.