'Heartbreak Library' a slow, soft ride
By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: Oct. 13, 2008
"Heartbreak Library," directed by Kim Jung-kwon, has a misleading Korean title: "Geu-namja-ui chaek 198-jjok," which translates into "Page 198 of the Man's Book." On the surface, it is about a man who has lost his love and struggles with an uncontrollable sense of loss. But the real protagonist is his opposite, a woman who goes a step beyond her own romantic travails.
Her name is Eun-soo (played by singer/actress Eugene), a librarian who has recently broken-up with her boyfriend. Right before heading out to the library where she works, Eun-soo looks in the mirror, where a photo is attached with a yellow Post-it hiding the face of her old flame. Apparently her emotions for him have not gone away completely, even though she knows that he won't come back.
For Eun-soo, what's more important is her work at the library located in a seaside village, and she's a stickler. She knows where people hide library books and which ones are not in the right shelves. She also cannot stand a library patron who does not take care of the books, and she treats Jun-oh (Lee Dong-wook), a good-looking man clad in a black suit and black tie, like a serious criminal.
That's because Jun-oh keeps tearing out a single page (yes, page 198) from every book he comes across without realizing that his act is vandalism.
Eun-soo calls the police and hunts down the strange man, leading to a wild scuffle. The police, however, do not arrest him. It turns out that he did not know the rules of the library and says he will copy the pages he wants from now on. That seems a reasonable solution for everybody except Eun-soo, who still fumes about the incident.
Even so, she is drawn to Jun-ho's strange habit of looking at page 198 in library books. Asked why, Jun-oh explains that he wants to find a message in one of the books that might lead to his girlfriend, since she recently disappeared, leaving behind a mysterious note that read, "Look up page 198."
When Eun-soo traces the library database, she discovers that Jun-oh's girlfriend was a bibliophile, checking out a total of 900 books from the library.
Eun-soo initially advises Jun-ho to let her go if that's her wish, because keeping trying to trace her is just an empty obsession. But Jun-oh does not show any sign of quitting; his resolve to find his beloved, if anything, seems stronger than ever.
Kim generously throws in hints and foreshadowing details about Jun-oh's situation, sometimes providing far more details than necessary in an apparent bid to get the audience to realize the movie's key theme: memory.
Both Eun-soo and Jun-oh are stuck in the trap of their memories. Eun-soo, for her part, is going through the painful process of healing after splitting with her boyfriend. She wants forget the whole thing, but she fails to pull out of the pit of regret.
While, nobody wants to revisit a painful memory, the movie seems to suggest that Eun-soo cannot and should not forget the past. After all, the past, be it positive or negative, is part of life. One consolation is that, as Jun-oh at one point states, all pains associated with memories eventually fade, even though the memories themselves never go away.
Jun-oh's somewhat erratic behavior prompts a couple of subplots that involve a gangster boss and a sushi bar. But the episode with the gangster who appreciates Jun-oh's culinary talent seems far removed from the overall tone of the film, which can be safely classified as a romantic drama.
More relevant are the two trips Eun-soo and Jun-oh agree to go on together. The first one, proposed by Jun-oh, is to find a trace of his girlfriend, and the second, suggested by Eun-soo, is to find not only a trace but the evidence of true love that awaits Jun-oh's visit.
Eugene plays the role of Eun-soo in a solid, reliable fashion that helps flesh out a likable character befitting a typical romantic novel. She is basically the girl next door, and Eun-soo presents a character with whom the audience can easily connect.
Lee Dong-wook also breaks some ground in bringing about Jun-oh's brooding, sad-eyed character, but his emotional subtlety, especially at a climactic moment, still needs some polishing.
Overall, the movie's plot turns are slow-paced, partly because it is based on a short story by Yun Seong-hui and extended to a full-length feature by screenwriters Na Hyeon and Park Eun-yeong.
However, visual details are carefully chosen to enhance the romantic mood, well-suited to the target audience of female moviegoers in their 20s and 30s - those who will gravitate toward Eun-soo's special sympathy that is at once rare and heart-warming.