Like it or not, romance and economics are inseparable.
It’s not just that finding a partner can seem like a struggle against the vagaries of supply and demand. even after people meet, the economic context also influences your ability to maintain relationships: if you’re too busy being a 24/7 wage slave, then good luck taking care of your partner .
the latest netflix original korean romance sweet & sour recognizes and explores this reality. Through the story of a nurse and her engineer boyfriend, this film offers a refreshing and thoughtful insight into the practical difficulties of maintaining a relationship in contemporary South Korean capitalist society. sweet and sweet sour is not a lighthearted movie for a first date. however, it is likely to resonate with many East Asian viewers and provide an unexpectedly rich look at contemporary social issues in South Korea.
the nurse meets the engineer
Sweet & Sour begins with a chubby young man lying in a hospital bed. His name is Lee Jang-hyeok, and he has jaundice. Being sick sucks, but there’s a silver lining. An attractive young nurse named Da-eun has been assigned to care for “Hyeok,” as she soon nicknames him. Seeing that Da-hae feels constantly tired and hungry, Hyeok lets her sneak naps on his bed and mooch off his food. The two start developing feelings for each other and, after Hyeok is discharged from the hospital, begin dating. After receiving a pair of shoes from Da-eun ahead of Christmas, Hyeok promises to lose weight and make her proud.
Suddenly, the movie changes to show da-eun with a substantially thinner and more handsome hyeok. One day, Heyok gets the chance to become a contract worker at a prestigious construction engineering company in Seoul. Since he and Da-hae live in Incheon, Hyeok will have to endure a tiring journey and see Da-hae much less than he used to. However, if he does well at the company, Hyeok could become a full-time employee and provide the couple with more financial security.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Hyeok must fend off the challenges of another contract named Bo-yeong (played by Krystal Jung of K-pop girl group f(x)), and impress his full-time senior colleagues. Meanwhile, Da-eun’s nursing job, also a contract, isn’t getting any easier either. Amid many trials and tribulations, including a well-executed plot twist, can her romance survive the vagaries of South Korea’s rat race?
reality of romance
If you’re looking for a movie that stokes romantic fantasies, or tugs your heartstrings with stirring melodrama, Sweet & Sour will not satisfy your needs. Instead, this is a movie that sparks contemplation; it paints a picture of romance that’ll feel realistic to many viewers, especially in South Korea and other Asian countries.
For example, the phenomenon of contract work, which affects both dulce & the protagonists of sour—is sadly common among young South Koreans (as well as among young people from other countries). as the film shows, contract workers have little job security and suffer marginalization at the hands of their elders. Hyeok experiences constant anxiety about gaining full-time status; His full-time colleagues give him a job and then exclude him from business lunches.
Young South Koreans must also deal with a hierarchical corporate culture and exceptionally long hours, often in exchange for reduced wages. Both hyeok and da-eun have little autonomy under domineering bosses, who flippantly ask them to stay overtime or suddenly change their work schedules. this further reduces the couple’s face-to-face time and kills their sense of intimacy.
love in chosen hell
This fits with how, as we’ve explained in many Cinema Escapist articles, many young South Koreans call their country “Hell Chosun” (i.e. “Hell Korea”). It’s a name that refers to the depressing combination of economic insecurity, inequality, and horrid working conditions that South Korean society has come to embody. In this frame, Sweet & Sour is less a pure romance movie, and more a movie that explores Hell Chosun’s effects on romance. Accordingly, the film borrows techniques from other works that examine South Korea’s socioeconomic ills.
As an example, hyeok’s boss and his senior colleagues constantly pepper their speech with English words, trying to sound more “sophisticated” but coming across as silly and hollow. This is reminiscent of the wealthy Park family in parasite who, like many upper-class South Koreans in real life, use English vocabulary as a haughty class-signaling device.
At another point, hyeok’s fellow contractor, bo-yeong, drunkenly calls his boss chinilpa. This term refers to Koreans who collaborated with Japan during the colonial period. South Korean leftists often use the term to insult those on the political right, who are often associated with the country’s entrenched capitalist elite. Since South Korea’s creative industries often lean to the left, the concept of chinilpa often comes up during social criticism in popular media.
time to give up
In the midst of all these real-world problems, sweet & sour question: is romance possible? it’s worth it? is a very relevant question, because more and more young South Koreans say “no, it’s not possible or worth it”.
There is a term that describes today’s South Korean youth as sampo seda. In English, this means “three generations abandoned” and refers to how, in the face of overwhelming socioeconomic unrest, many young South Koreans have given up the three phenomena of dating, marriage, and motherhood. In fact, living alone is on the rise in South Korea, and fertility rates are at record lows.
in fact, sweet & sour even shows da-eun having an abortion, a choice that links the couple’s problems to south korea’s broader inability to make motherhood financially acceptable. While such portrayals may upset some fragile American minds, abortions and other stubborn realities of relationships feature regularly in East Asian romance movies.
This is not particularly surprising if you have any connection to East Asian cultures. Like their South Korean peers, young people in China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and beyond are also realizing that falling in love and having children are real pains in the ass (and wallet). sweet and sweet sour, and similar realistic films, speak to these audiences in a way that stereotypical melodramas and romantic comedies cannot. given that some of netflix’s most recent k-movies have been pretty stupid affairs, it’s a nice surprise to see sweet & sour taking a more thoughtful approach, especially in a genre often overrun with emotional appeals and fandoms.
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sweet & sour (Korean: 새콤달콤)—South Korea. dialogue in korean directed by lee gye-byeok. First released on June 4, 2021. Runtime 1 hour and 41 minutes. starring jang ki-yong, chae soo-bin, krystal jung.