Sweet & Sour exists as a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy depicting the difficulty of young love, especially for those living hundreds of miles apart. But Lee Gye-byeok has one twist to make the film (barely) stand out.
This review of the Netflix film Sweet & Sour does not contain spoilers — the South Korean rom-com was released on the streaming service on June 4, 2021.
Lee Gye-byeok’s Sweet & Sour, Netflix’s South Korean romantic comedy, begins with a hepatitis patient in the hospital. The patient starts a flirtatious, odd relationship with Da-eun (Chae Soo-bin), a young nurse who asks to call him “Hyeok.” As the 20-something patient gets healthier over the course of three months, their relationship becomes more than just chatter, gearing up towards a vacation trip for Christmas. And then, 30 minutes in, he looks different.
Da-eun is still dating a man named Hyeok, but he’s more fit, a bit less jealous, and seemingly more put together. A different actor shows up in this relationship, Jang Ki-yong. The two work through a long-distance relationship as Hyeok is transferred to a larger architectural design firm in Seoul. The next hour of the film plays out as you might expect. Hyeok works later nights, Da-eun keeps her late shifts at the hospital, and the two slowly drift apart.
Still, Sweet & Sour keeps an air of oddity, as Hyeok meets a woman, Bo-yeong (Krystal Jung), at his firm, another one of the contractual workers, forging a love-hate relationship in order to become successful. They spend every night together, hammering through projects, rising up the ranks. This cycle continues almost to an incessant amount as the audience watches the daily slog of these young people’s lives. With little comedy or intrigue, the narrative stalls, waiting for Hyeuk to make a move on either woman, just for the story to progress.
In a span of ten minutes, Da-eun becomes pregnant, has an abortion, and the relationship goes back to failing, showing the strain of long-distance for this couple. Sweet & Sour remains interested in exploring the difficulties of these relationships, but it has a commitment to looking at faithfulness within dating, digging into this topic with varying degrees of success. Hyeuk struggles to decide if he should cheat with Bo-yeong, whom he’s grown fond of, aided by the building doorman shutting off the office lights each evening, while Da-eun keeps on spending later evenings at the hospital, waiting for her boyfriend to make life-altering decisions.
Though the film follows a clear and obvious setup, it goes for broke in its final five minutes, a conclusion that feels both unearned and batshit-crazy in execution. Lee’s got guts to end a simple film with a convoluted ending, and the characters seem as confused as we are when all of the twists are exposed. But it makes for a more exciting film, pushing you to look back over the course of the 100-minute film with a different lens, one of confused curiosity instead of reinforced boredom.
Sweet & Sour will feel trite until the final five minutes, but it deserves credit for laying down clues that even the most dedicated movie sleuths likely won’t follow. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the ending is earned because this brand of film rarely takes a swing by the time the credits roll. If nothing else, Lee swung for the fences at the last moment, willing to try something new, regardless of its overall impact on the film-watching experience. And that deserves a measure of credit, though it won’t overshadow shakily drawn characters, uninspired cinematography, and fair acting that won’t elevate a fair script.