|A recent fad in Korean (and Japanese) cinema is films based on Internet serial novels and/or posting boards. The Internet novel is an excellent way of generating interest as well as creating an audience well before the film is released. The cult of Lily Chou-Chou began on the web, and it was postings to the imaginary singer's website that helped form the screenplay of Shunji Iwai's excellent All About Lily Chou-Chou. (Iwai has done something similar with his follow-up film, Hana and Alice.) 2003 saw no fewer than three major films in Korea that originated as serialized novels on the Internet. The film that started the whole phenomena was the 2001 romantic-comedy My Sassy Girl. Directed by Kwak Jae-yong, the film is based on supposed real-life incidents that were logged to a website and then turned into a book. It was the second highest grossing film in Korea that year, and the highest grossing comedy ever.|
Filmbrain should mention that he is not a fan of the contemporary rom com. Decades ago, Hollywood made very good comedies that happened to have a bit of romance in them, but in recent years it has morphed into something utterly horrendous. Neither drama nor comedy, these films tend to fit somewhere in the syrupy middle. They fall into three categories:
Naturally then, Filmbrain approached My Sassy Girl with some trepidation. Though far more commercial than most of the Korean fare Filmbrain has been viewing of late, it has quite a lot going for it, and is a much more palatable rom com than say, Maid in Manhattan or Kate and Leopold.
The film follows the (mis)adventures of Kyun-woo, a twenty-something slacker, and the never-named sassy girl who can go from charming to playfully violent in the blink of an eye. Kyun-woo first spots her on a subway platform one night after she's had way too much to drink. After throwing up on another passenger (the film contains an awful lot of bodily excretions), she refers to Kyun-woo as "honey", thereby forcing him to take responsibility for her. Taking her to a Love Hotel so she can sleep it off somehow ends up with Kyun-woo being thrown in jail with a pack of bloodstained gangsters. From this point forward their 'relationship' begins, though it's hardly romantic at first. The girl calls all the shots, even demanding what he eats and drinks in restaurants and bars. (Her standard response when he makes a mistake is "Do you want to die?") The girl is a screenwriter, and one of Kyun-woo's tasks is to read her rather predictable action-film screenplays. (In one of the film's funniest moments, Kyun-woo gives one of her screenplays to a film producer who winds up getting violently ill as a result of reading it.) The relationship continues in this manner for quite some time, and there are several set pieces that stem out of some odd request by the girl. The film takes a serious turn in the final thirty minutes, and though it dangerously flirts with syrup, it manages to maintain enough distance. Even hardened-cynical Filmbrain was a little taken by the slight twist at the end.
There's an incredible chemistry between actors Cha Tae-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun that makes the film a pleasure to watch. Much of the humor is quite physical, and there's almost a pantomime-like quality to many of the wordless humorous scenes. Both actors have very expressive faces, and they spend most of the film throwing them into various contortions. The three re-enactments of her screenplays allow the actors to perform in a Matrix-like shoot-em-up, an Ashes of Time-like martial arts film, and a period drama with a sassy turn of the ending. Though full of laughs, 140 minutes is too long for a rom com. (In all fairness, Filmbrain saw the director's cut, which was twenty minutes longer than the theatrical release.) There's a lengthy sequence in an amusement park with a suicidal solider that just stops the film dead in its tracks. The 'serious' third act and epilogue go on longer than they need to. However, none of this should discourage you from seeing it. It's very entertaining, and there's a great joy in watching the two of them together. The screenplay is quite clever, and the situations they wind up in are all rather unique (though Filmbrain questions how much is indeed based on true events). It's also quite nice to see a fresh take on the obstacle that prevents them from being together. There's none of this "He's an 18th century Belgian fop and she's a 21st century ad executive - can they get along?" or "He's the president of the United States and she's an illegal immigrant working in a sweat shop - how can they ever find happiness?" Though one could perhaps analyze the film closely and conclude that Kyun-woo's masochistic tendencies are indicative and symbolic of a current crisis of masculinity in Korea, why bother? This is a highly enjoyable film that proves you can have a romantic comedy without even so much as a single kiss. (Truly.)
As with almost every Korean film these days, this one is slated for a remake, and Gurinder 'Bend it Like Beckham' Chadha has been chosen to direct. Filmbrain can think of worse choices (easily!) but once again questions the need for a remake.