A rediscovered record album unearthed in 1991 at an urban construction site in South Korea acts like a time capsule to take “Love, Lies” back to the early 1940s and the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II.  In a confluence of gorgeous artistry, strong passions, and high melodrama, “Love, Lies” paints an impressive drama with compelling sweep.  Director Park Heung-sik’s exquisite film made its Chicago premiere on May 3rd as the closing night film of this year’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Through the 1940’s, the Daesung Agency trained castoff young women for two purposes.  The best and brightest from the commune’s tutelage became highly sought-after performers of traditional song and dance, .  The lesser-talented subordinates became courtesans to those of privilege.  The agency is arriving at a time of transition when a dual invasions are encroaching Korea, mainstream music and the Axis power of Japan.

Two recent graduates of Daesung have been best friends since they were children.  So-yool (“Cold Eyes” star Han Hyo-joo) is the daughter of a famous singer and the institution’s headmistress (Jang Young-nam), and Yeon-hee (Chun Woo-hee of “The Wailing”) was a recovered orphan of lower class.  Both women idolize the emerging pop mavens of the day, capturing the attention of the city’s top new songwriter Kim Yoon-woo (Yoo Yeon-seok of “Reply 1994”).  

Kim first woos So-yool only to become enraptured by Yeon-hee’s beauty and vocal talent.  He convinces Yeon-hee to leave Daesung and the traditional singing methods for this modern arrangements that have inspired the youthful public against the embedded Japanese regime.  Jilted by both love and music, So-yool acquires a patron in the form of the local police commissioner (Park Sung-woong of “New World”), a relationship built on exchanges of comfort and career advancement.  

Vibrant period details add production value across every inch of Heung-sik’s film.  The recreations of 1940s Seoul (then called Gyeongseong) are incredible.  The gorgeously adorned sets, exterior locations, and lush costumes are all bathed in perfect lighting absorbed by Jo Eun-soo’s camera.  Melodramas deserve lavish accoutrement and “Love, Lies” does not disappoint.  

“Love, Lies” plays upon the decaying dichotomy orbiting the two women as they vie for love and validation against dignity and betrayal.  Both Han Hyo-joo and Chun Woo-hee compose lovely vocal presentations and powerful theatrical performances.  It’s impossible not to feel the emotions they imbue into their punctuating moments of expression through song that fully embody the conflict and romantic encumbrances weighing on their characters.  Lee Byung-hoon’s music is the vital and resonating fiber that unites the period atmosphere with the stirring portrayals of talent.

LESSON #1: TRADITION VS. MODERNITY-- “Love, Lies” presents an artistic medium and a country at a crossroads.  Modern music and reducing female inferiority challenge classical and antiquated arts and male-dominated practices at a time of strife and uncertainty.  

LESSON #2: HONOR AND JEALOUSY AMONG ARTISTS-- Echoing Lesson #1, the film presents specific imbalances between honor and jealousy.  Competing for one man’s affection leads to contentious peer relations boiling over.  Jealousy begins to outweigh the shared honor these two women had for each other and their craft.  Broken promises make it even worse.

LESSON #3: SELLING YOURSELF FOR SUCCESS-- True to the former practices, the career and personal survival of the women of Daesung came down to the sacrifices made for success.  The women had to sell something, either their talent, style, body, principles, and any or all of the above to ensure their standing.  Being the truest and best version of yourself was limited by what values were lost and compromised.