“We were all someone’s first love/우리는 모두 누군가의 첫사랑이었다.”
- Slogan from Architecture 101 promotion poster
One’s first love is a moment in life that tends to trigger polarised reactions when people are asked about it: either you have fond recollections of time spent together with your sweetheart experiencing the sensations of love for the first time, or you are reminded of a dark point in your life. Unrequited love, acrimonious breakups… in any case it is a topic that remains personal for all of us.
Architecture 101, directed by Lee Yong-joo, will take you back to a time of youthful bliss juxtaposed with midlife crises and subsequent indecisiveness. It also provides a concise insight into Korean university culture and the restless days of one’s youth. Given the movie’s success in the Korean box office, many viewers in their 30s and 40s were able to experience nostalgia over the 118-minute screening and liked its primary topic.
The film also triggered a reprise of 1990s popular culture items, ranging from the musical duo Exhibition’s songs (coincidentally Kim Dong-ryul, frontman of the duo, was an Architectural Engineering major at Yonsei University, as was Lee Yong-joo) to the ‘all-back’ hairstyle which aptly involves smothering hairspray and pushing one’s hair to the back. Seung-min marvels at Jae-wook’s (played by Yoo Yeon-seok) new PC which has a 1GB hard drive, prompting him to claim that he could use all the space for the rest of his life.
Our male protagonist, Lee Seung-min (played by Uhm Tae-woong) works in an architectural firm and is one day approached by Yang Seo-yeon (played by Han Ga-in) with a request to build a house for her father on Jeju-do. The two are then taken back to their first encounter 15 years ago on the first day of Introductory Architecture class, in which Seung-min is played by Lee Je-hoon and Seo-yeon by Suzy from miss A. The viewer is then taken through the memories shared by the youthful couple throughout their very first semester at university.
As Seung-min and Seo-yeon reminisce, the two realise the magnitude of 15 years and the different stages of their lives in which they find themselves. Seung-min is scheduled to marry his assistant and study in the U.S., while Seo-yeon has finalised her divorce; her and her husband had been estranged for two, almost three years. As the two old friends finally rekindle their ties and realise that their first loves were one another, the duo face a crossroads between possibly taking a new direction together or continuing on their divergent, respective paths.
The film does a nice job in signposting the plot by using excerpts of Architecture 101 classes to signify each Act/transition in time and its transitions from the past to the present are done seamlessly for the most part. Parallels are made from the classroom homework and the protagonists’ relationship: the first class entails discovering one’s local neighbourhood and finishes with an after-party, which starts and concludes their ties as students respectively.
Regret, speculation and Korean university life are three issues the film throws into the limelight and all three are skilfully covered. Seo-hyun’s desire for recognition among her peers and her failures in news announcer exams are accompanied by Seung-min’s past and present conflicts on his love life. The ever-longing desire for first year university students to experience relationships and bar crawls is dutifully portrayed as well, reflecting the quasi-universal sentiment among Korean high school students to finish their secondary school studies and experience ‘liberation’ at tertiary institutions as legal adults.
One area that might have been interesting to explore more in detail would be the relationship between Seo-hyun and Seung-min’s fiancée; while the film’s intention was to focus on the two protagonists’ relationship in their 20s, this tension is not uncommon whenever soon-to-be husbands and wives discuss their past lives. However, had Lee Yong-joo decided to pursue this subplot in detail the film’s overall tone would have changed into something more ambiguous, instead of the warm fuzzy feeling one has reminiscing about the past. In order to keep the film clear and unified, focusing on Seo-yeon and Seung-min’s past and current relationship was ultimately a good decision.
Combine nostalgia, punny (typo/pun intended) but nonetheless bad jokes – “개포동? Isn’t that a North Korean missile?”* comes to mind – with masterfully restraint acting and cinematography and you will get Architecture 101. Two lives that once crossed the same path 15 years ago converge once again right before they diverge once more, possibly for a longer period of time. Humans have a tendency to consider counterfactuals with decisions they make; love is no exception to the rule. However, the intimate nature of romance will make such questions more wistful and make people long for their bliss, carefree days as youth.
*개포동/Gaepo-dong is an area in Gangnam; the NK missile in question is 대포동
By Ben Lee
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