Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Sassy Girl (Jae-young Kwak, 2001)

Recently stumbling across a few old reviews which are laughably bad, I thought it would be interesting to post them over a period of time not only to make my blog seem more content heavy but to reflect on my writing to see whether or not it has gotten worse or improved over the years. Let's begin.

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The large film movement going on in South Korean has been quite steadfast in releasing a multitude of films to contend with the foreign markets of movie production. This rapid output has resulted in a wide range of new talent and successful box office receipts and has proven to be quite adamant in bringing Korean cinema to mainstream audiences all over the world. My Sassy Girl happens to be one of the better films to emerge from this movement.

Often bordering on the edge of improbability and complete lunacy, My Sassy Girl is nothing like your typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Despite its absurdity, the film manages to be remarkably tender and just a fun ride to boot. I’m tired of having to sit through romantic comedies that are so predictable and cliche. Boy falls in love with girl, insert montage of the couple holding hands walking on the promenade eating ice-cream set to a pop-song, they break up and then get back together. The End.


Surprisingly, this film is a breath of fresh air; one that manages to successfully take this genre to a whole new level without succumbing to the traps of cliché. Instead, Kwak does a full reversal on different cliches by making them whacky. Coincidence and chance are also used to a certain extent as a plot device without becoming too contrived. Running gags are used for comedic effect and more often than not, they work quite well in generating plenty of laughs. Sure, there may have been several missteps along the way but Kwak never loses sight of his vision to show that love is unpredictable and can be found between two radically different people even in the most bizarre of circumstances.

Kyun-Woo (Tae-hyun Cha) is an engineering student who saves the life of a drunken girl (Ji-hyun Jun) from falling into an oncoming underground subway-car. Barely able to stand up straight and with her eyes rolling in the back of her head, she manages to make it onto subway and is mistaken by the disgruntled passengers as his girlfriend after she brings attention to herself by yelling at some of them including a man who won’t give up his seat to an old man. After throwing up on an elderly man with a toupee (which is grossly hilarious) and passing out on the floor she is mistaken as his girlfriend. He could have just left her lying unconscious on the dirty floor of the subway car and got off at the next stop but he decides take her to a hotel room to sober up. This voluntary gesture of kindness by Kyun-Woo reveals something about his character which will become important as the film goes on – his utmost devotion to a reckless girl who takes him for granted and treats him like a pile of dirt.

Often, I questioned his motives for wanting to stay in a relationship with a girl who is clearly an out-of-control alcoholic but even when she is not drinking she is still a vindictive arrogant bitch. Besides the occasional death threat (“wanna die?”) or the physical abuse she inflicts on Kyun-Woo he still doesn’t give up on her because he wants to “heal her sorrow.” One gets the sense that deep down she is a genuine good person but is a troubled with a heavy conscience. As the film progresses, the reason for her obtuse behavior becomes more clear while Kyun-Woo has to put up with her crazy antics.

“Quirkiness” would be an appropriate term for this film since the characters behave in a manner that seems irrational, especially the girl (she is not referred to by any first name) who is prone to outbursts of physical abusive to the protagonist Kyun-woo and verbally abusive to others. The two lovers also find themselves in the oddest situations such as being held hostage by a solider at an amusement park. They also engage in peculiar ways including one where she forces him to switch shoes because her feet hurt and he ends up walking around in high heels. Or how about the several times they play against each other in a game of squash but Kyun-Woo just keeps getting hit in the face with the ball. He can’t seem to get a break even when it comes to sparring in a Kento match where she inadvertently defeats him with one move. His suffering brought on by the girl is actually quite funny in an ironic sort of way.

Rather unanticipated but creative nonetheless, there are two sequences that seem out of place but are wonderfully composed. The first one is a high-voltage action sequence which is quite impressive in terms of bullet-time and the second one is a samurai fight during the feudal era. They both do not occur in real time but play out in Kyun-Woo’s mind as he is forced by the girl (death threats again) to read her short stories. In his imagination, he and the girl are the main characters in the stories where each time she has to show her bravery and rescue him from peril. It’s ironic how he thinks he is the one who is trying to save her from self-destruction while she happens to the one who is actually saving him. At times, she is clearly a nightmare. He obviously can’t stand her presence and considers running away from her several times. But there is a paradox. When she is not with him, he feels confused and unsure of himself. Truth be told, it is a peculiar relationship where the more he dislikes her, the more he falls in love. I saw the girl as someone who provided a purpose for Kyun-Woo from his otherwise banal life.

Far from revolutionary, the film may be a bit nutty at times but the romance feels genuine. There are a number of tender and sweet moments that bring a sense of exuberance. My favorite scene in the entire film just happens to be one of these moments and it is where Kyun-Woo pays a visit at the girl’s college lecture hall which is compromised of entirely females. She is playing Mozart’s Pachaebel in D Minor on the piano in front of her classmates and he walks in disguised as a delivery boy. Of course, he draws the attention of all the women, especially the girl who is in the middle of her composition. Even though he is nervous, he bucks up the courage and walks down on stage to give her a red rose. It is an emotionally gratifying scene where no words are exchanged. The actor’s rely purely on their facial expressions as they gaze at one another with a sense of joyful happiness; both struggling to keep in their tears. The audience erupts in applause and gives a standing ovation. Kwak directs this scene with such splendor elevating what could have just been a regular cliché scene into something really magical that had me clapping with the rest of the audience members as well.

The film on a whole is wonderfully executed but it is the chemistry between the two leads which makes it work so well. However, Ji-hyun Jun is the foundation of the film’s success as the distraught girl. She is simply fantastic and delivers a wide-range of emotions convincingly. When she cries, you feel her pain. If she is acting disapprovingly or on one of her drunken rants, all that overburden of sadness coupled with grief feels so real. She is a tortured soul and Jun fleshes out her character with great veracity. I can’t recommend this film enough for those who are looking for something different from the ordinary fare of romantic comedies. Emotionally gratifying and often very funny, if you can find a copy of this film please don’t hesitate to give it a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that there is a whole lot of filmmaking talent just waiting to be discovered from other foreign countries.

8.0




Review written September, 2005.

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