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I had some misgivings about choosing A Millionaire's First Love as my free DVD with a past order from YesAsia. I often use those free DVDs as opportunities to try out movies that I would otherwise have no interest in spending money on. Sometimes, it works out well and at other times, at least I didn't pay money for the freebie. This is one of those "other" times, as the film takes a high-concept drama/comedy idea and jerks it into something completely different (and manipulative).
The setup isn't exactly an eyebrow raising kind: spoiled brat millionaire orphan Jae-Kyung (Hyun Bin) discovers that he has to graduate from a high school in the boonies with none of his money to help, if he wants to receive his inheritance. Of course, he doesn't take well to this and tries hard to find a loophole out. At the new school, he meets its small class of bumpkin students including Eunwhan (Lee Yeonhee) a young woman who drops in on him in Seoul and seems to work every odd job in town. Clearly the beginning of an antagonistic relationship with unresolved sexual tension common in screwball and romantic comedies. Then, halfway through the film, a revelation hits the story, throwing it in a completely different direction and a series of more revelations occur for the rest of the second half digging it deeper in a direction that's completely unrelated to the initial conceit.
Look, I'm not going to deny that the film actually did a great job of manipulating me during its scenes and it took a little time to develop the characters a little so when the mid-point twist happened, you can't help but care a little for the character. However, A Millionaire's First Love only does just enough to squeeze emotions from the hearts of more sensitive visitors, stringing scene after scene of these moments together with hardly any meaningful story of note between them. The main character learns about the value of things beyond money, but we never get to see that process, rather it seems to happen spontaneously out of the "love" between his character, but the stakes for such change never really seem clear. And that's the problem with the whole film, none of the connective tissue between any of the scenes are there--they are implied, but none of the development of the characters or their relationship is earned. All of this is made even worse by the heavily contrived nature of the revelations that occur in the film. They aren't necessary to tell the story that's trying to be told and just ends up being ridiculous. When all is said and done, I felt manipulated and that I was watching a whole lot of emotional nothing.
In terms of production, the film is all right. The film is actually photographed with relative simplicity and the photography team seems to like washing the film in warm golds during the daytime scenes, which probably all aim to heighten the manipulative capacities of the film. The direction is apt, in terms of drawing those emotional performances, but the stylistic flourishes that inhabit the beginning seem just a little overbaked, especially as the whole film seems to turn, in terms of direction, along with the story. The actors, not having been given characters of any considerable depth, are a bit of a question mark in terms of their ability, but they fill their role in the emotional manipulation well, bawling, crying, getting frustrated, getting angry, but while they get those parts right, the characters still never really connect on a meaningful level.
Again, the manipulation worked on me and drew the expected emotions, but there's absolutely nothing subtle about this film. And it's not even like I require subtle, but the story itself is focused more on creating these highly emotionally charged scenes and forsakes actual meaningful character development for implied character development. It's really obvious what the film is up to and relies heavily on cliché ideas from both romantic comedy in the first half and melodrama in the second to drive the story. And what's worse is that the story just seems to abandon it's main story for large swatches of time in the second half of the film and largely loses focus of it, leading to a rather unclear path trodden. This is, I think, what you get when you develop a whole film around a few hard hitting emotional scenes, without truly considering the story at large. If you're seeking that kind of emotional roller coaster, this will provide it, but it's really obvious what it's up to. And essentially, besides that blast of emotions from its many designed-to-shake-hearts scenes, it provides little substance, so I recommend a pass, except for those looking for that sort of emotional ride without a point. 4/10.