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[Herald Review] ‘The First Lap’ offers no fantasy, but is ultimate romantic comedy

Film humorously depicts clumsy couple’s life, family, marriage

Like his debut film “End of Winter,” Kim Dae-hwan’s sophomore feature “The First Lap” takes place in the wintry cold, zooming in on two characters huddled together in bulky parkas, rubbing their hands and wondering where to go.

The film follows a fresh-faced thirty-something couple who are clumsy when it comes to life and romance. After seven years of dating, they’re under pressure, both from families and others, to move forward to marriage.

That next looming step of adulthood causes anxieties, as they occupy precarious positions at their respective jobs, but more importantly, they’re afraid of turning out like their parents.

It is a simple story executed in a fittingly simple way. A handheld camera observes and trails the couple, who move about naturally and spontaneously according to a loosely scripted screenplay written by Kim. Most of the dialogue was adlibbed by the actors, according to the director, once they got into character. 

Jo Hyun-chul (left) and Kim Sae-byuk star in “The First Lap.” (Indieplug)
Jo Hyun-chul (left) and Kim Sae-byuk star in “The First Lap.” (Indieplug)

“Only the general situation was given. ... We tried not to limit the actors’ movements,” director Kim said at a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, on Thursday.

Actress Kim Sae-byuk, who starred in Hong Sang-soo’s “The Day After,” plays Ji-young, a part-time employee at a cable channel. Jo Hyun-chul, who has played supporting characters in films such as last year’s “Master” and “Tunnel,” plays Su-hyeon, an artist of average talent.

As a boyfriend, Su-hyeon is frustrating, unable to react appropriately to the developing relationship and refusing to worry over complicated matters like marriage. But he is overwhelmingly sweet. When Ji-young’s well-meaning but overbearing mother disapproves of Su-hyeon, she breaks down in tears, and Su-hyeon is there to comfort her.

Unaggressive and painfully transparent, Su-hyeon cannot bring himself to network with influential professors to move ahead. “What do I say?” he repeatedly asks a friend who takes pity on his excruciating meekness.

Nothing is smooth sailing. And like Kim’s debut work, the film provides an excellent depiction of the archetypal Korean family, with its inter-generational struggles and deep-seated resentment. But “The First Lap” is much more humorous and optimistic than “End of Winter.”

This is no guide to the picture-perfect relationship but somehow, it turns out to be the ultimate romantic comedy. We get a sense that the characters, achingly human in all their blunders, will be all right.

The film was screened at the Jeonju International Film Festival and the San Diego Film Festival. In August, director Kim won the award for best emerging director at the Locarno Film Festival. Last week, the film won the award for best script at the Mar del Plata Film Festival.

“The First Lap” hits local theaters on Thursday.

By Rumy Doo (

Korea Herald daum