Uber-cool yet undoubtedly arrogant Seoul youth Jae-Kyung has little interest in his senior year at school, concentrating instead on the vast inheritance he will receive when he turns 18. Treating everyone around him with a barely concealed contempt, the teenage troublemaker relies on his good looks, fast fists and most importantly wads of Won to get out of any situation. Jae-Kyung’s sheltered bubble of solipsism is burst when full details of his grandfather’s will is disclosed and it is revealed that the opulent wealth he enjoys will only continue if he graduates from school. And not just any school: it has to be the centre of education in the family’s hometown of Boram.
Boram is the Korean hinterland that Jae-Kyung expected, populated by bumpkins with unfashionable haircuts and parochial accents. Although the swaggering rebel wants to be excluded from school he finds the locals strangely forgiving and relentlessly cheerful in nature. This exposure to humanity begins to wear the floppy-haired poseur’s tough exterior and reveal a dark secret that turned him into the monster he’s become.
‘Millionaire’s First Love’ is, as so many Korean films of this genre are, divided with surgical precision. The first hour presents us with a very disagreeable protagonist, a preening oaf full of hubris and disdain, sporting a spoilt urchin expression that will impel all but the most enduring to leap at the screen and try to slap it straight off his face. This kind of romantic fiction relies on an initial dislike for the man who will eventually be the hero and director Kim Tae-Gyun succeeds admirably in showing Jae-Kyung to be a first-class cretin. So effective is this that the viewer begins to wonder what incredible feat of atonement he could possible offer to make them care what happens to him. Then, the directorial scalpel is wielded and the story is sliced in half, ‘A Millionaire’s First Love’ hobbles to the seemingly incongruous second act.
As it draws to it conclusion, that Korean melancholy kicks in and the characters begin to extend beyond caricatures. It takes quite a recompense for Jae-Kyung to become the character we are meant to care about though his actions are so extreme initially that even by the end it is difficult to accept the transformation. Yet Lee Yeon-Hee’s punchy performance keeps our interest buoyant when difficulties arise. It is her efforts that ultimately give ‘A Millionaire’s First Love’ a protagonist to care about and a way for us to gradually warm to the anti-hero, meaning that Kim Tae-Gyun’s romantic drama has that needed resonance as its reaches it denouement.