Year: 2010
Director: Chang You-jeong
Screenplay: Lee Kyung-Ui
Cast: Lim Soo-jung, Gong Yoo
Runtime: 112 min.
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)

Just before his obligatory two-year stint in the Korean military, Gong Yoo scored a big hit with the 2007 drama 커피프린스 1호점 (Keopi Peurinseu 1 Hojeom/The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, better known as simply Coffee Prince). Flooded with offers due to Coffee Prince’s immense success, his first post-military project, 김종욱 찾기 (Kim Jong-Ok Chatgi/Finding Mr. Destiny), was perhaps not the big come-back that fans were expecting but surely a good way for Gong Yoo to ease himself back into acting.

Finding Mr. Destiny is based on the Korean musical Kim Jong-Ok Chatgi (literally Finding Kim Jong-Ok), with the writer for the musical play, Chang You-jeong, taking on the reins as the film’s director. The plot is as follows: Seo Ji-woo (Lim Soo-jung) is a young woman who keeps holding onto the memory of her first love, much to the chagrin of her family. When she rejects a perfectly good marriage proposal from the man she has (half-heartedly) been seeing, her father drags her to the “Finding Your First True Love Company”, a business venture newly founded by Han Gi-joon (Gong Yoo).

Because tracking down a long-lost love doesn’t fit into Ji-woo’s fate-based belief system (“If fate will have it, we’ll meet again” is her motto), she reveals only her first lover’s name – the Kim Jong-ok of the Korean title – and that they met while travelling in India ten years ago. Gi-joon however is not deterred by the lack of facts to go on and throws himself at the challenge with full enthusiasm. He soon has an intricate map of Ji-woo’s journey on the wall, as well as a list of all the 1108 35-year old Kim Jong-ok’s in South Korea. The plan is to visit – together with Ji-woo – everyone of them until they find “the one”, a plan that leads them to hike up spooky mountains in the middle of the night and soju-drink themselves (well, at least one of them) to drunken stupor.

Both Ji-woo and Gi-joon are very distinct characters, almost at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Ji-woo, who works as a stage director for a musical, is impulsive, chaotic and fiercely independent, while Gi-joon is a freak for tidiness and order (possibly verging on being obsessive-compulsive) and a klutz that even looks like one. With entirely different approaches to life, they are bound to clash, but as we observe them being equally stubborn as well as having some shared reflective moments, it appears that Ji-woo and Gi-joon are also very alike and, in fact, quite suited for one another.

The story comes in layers. Scenes that involve Ji-woo’s struggles with her stage directing job and Gi-joon’s family quibbles give roundness to their characters and the plot. Finding Mr. Destiny is also partially told through flashbacks that take the viewer back to India and allow us to learn about Ji-woo’s first love along with Gi-joon. The flashbacks integrate seamlessly into the narrative as the camera zooms in on a photograph in Ji-woo’s hands that then comes alive. Although some of these scenes of the past are short, even fragmentary, and leave the viewer hanging in the midst of a memory, they work well as a tension-creating device.

With part of the filming done on location in India, Finding Mr. Destiny offers colourful and pretty shots, contrasted with a different tonal range in the South Korean setting, although there splashes of colour, e.g. through Gi-joon’s bright yellow rain coat, provide a visual link and a connection between the characters. The film’s score is diverse, we get the typical orchestral score (which works well), but also sounds of India and some “Chicago”-like songs from the musical Ji-woo is directing. Interestingly both leads get to sing, Lim Soo-jung as part of the musical, while Gong Yoo performs the film’s theme song, “두 번째 첫사랑” (“Du Bunjjae Cheotsarang”/”Second First Love”), that plays during the credits.

But criticism is due as well: I enjoyed the film much more the second time watching – because the first time round I stumbled over Finding Mr. Destiny’s biggest flaw. Very bizarrely, Gong Yoo plays two roles – he is both Han Gi-joon as well as Kim Jong-ok. If not aware of this fact beforehand, you can easily spend much of the movie trying to puzzle this out, first – because the characters have slightly different looks – trying to figure out whether it is indeed the same actor, and then, whether they are one and the same character (pretending not to recognise one another? suffering from amnesia? radical identity change for dramatic reasons unknown?). It seems to be just a whim on the part of the film’s director, although, other than giving us more of Gong Yoo after his two-year absence, I still can’t come up with a good reason of why she would do this.

In addition to unnecessarily creating confusion, the double-casting also interferes with the relationship that (apparently) develops between Gi-joon and Ji-woo. While there is blistering chemistry between Gong Yoo and Lim Soo-jung in the India scenes, it is less clear how they fall for each other with Gong Yoo as Gi-joon – it’s almost as if their attraction to each other is conveyed through Gong Yoo’s Jong-ok, which doesn’t really make sense within the frame of a story.

Overall Verdict: Finding Mr. Destiny is a classic rom-com in many ways and not so original that it will remain etched in your mind forever, but has some rather loveable main characters, provides good laughs through physical comedy, and might even evoke sweet memories of your own first love.

Rating: 7/10

Note: I have included a spoiler (below the Image Gallery) for anyone confused by the film’s epilogue.

Bonus Links:

Image Gallery (also includes posters for The Crucible, Coffee Prince and Come Rain Come Shine):

SPOILER – Select text (the white space between “Spoiler” and “End Spoiler”) with your mouse to read – after watching the film.
The epilogue shows both Gi-joon and Ji-woo in the past, to when Gi-joon was an exchange student in Osaka and Ji-woo returned from India to South Korea via Japan. It’s a flashback to show that there was fate all along, just not where it was expected as Gi-joon’s and Ji-woo’s first meeting was not in the “First Love” office, but long before. Also note that Ji-woo responds to Gi-joon’s question about why she is extending her ticket and not returning to Seoul right away with “I want to leave my fate to fate” – and this is what happens in the end. Meanwhile, Gi-joon is flying to Korea for his own first love, a story that we learn about when the two leads are stuck in the mountain. At that point Gi-joon tells Ji-woo that he received an ‘invitation’, and in the epilogue we learn that it was wedding invitation.
The ‘destiny’ metaphor is woven into the film throughout (recall also the name of the hotel in India, the song of the musical), but I think is not overdone – it only pops up on occasion to remind us that while Gi-joon and Ji-woo’s love is destined, making that destiny happen is also an important part.