My Mighty Princess (무림여대생, Kwak Jae-young: 2008)

So-hwi possesses amazing martial arts abilities and super strength, and while her father wants her to focus on her martial arts training she just wants to blend in with her friends at school and win the attention of the ice hockey team Captain. Her childhood friend Il-yeong arrives back in her life – unknown to So-hwi he has been convinced by her father to try to guide her back into her training with the promise of a motorcycle – and So-hwi becomes even more torn between the simple life she craves and the martial arts she naturally excels at but has less interest in…

Director Kwak Jae-young sure likes his romantic comedies and melodramas. Squarely hitting the rom-com nail on the head in 2001 with My Sassy Girl, that film went onto become one of the biggest Korean box office draws of all time and sold very well around the world, inspiring remakes in the process. Although none of his subsequent films have performed quite as well – they’ve been far from flops but just haven’t reached the massive heights scaled by Sassy – they’ve also had a few patchy moments between them. I’d heard lots of negative things about My Mighty Princess before actually seeing it – that the film sat on the shelf for two years before its eventual theatrical release, that it was uneven, complicated and annoyingly episodic. It was therefore with some trepidation that I sat down to view it, well aware that this could be a tough two hours. I needn’t of worried too much though, flawed as it is I found myself able to disagree with many of the negative comments I’d heard about the film – I thoroughly enjoyed pretty much every minute of My Mighty Princess, although you need to look at those criticisms as positives rather than negatives.

From the outset My Mighty Princess lets you know you’re in for a ride. Opening with a mysterious voice-over which is described as the ‘telepathy’ of the masters, and then what appears to be a period scene of two men sword fighting – the type where they’re practically flying – in a forest before cutting away to So-hwi waking up in time for school with some light comedy, My Mighty Princess establishes itself as a mixture of styles. This is typical throughout the length of the film – flitting from comedy to melodrama, from special effects driven action to a layered storyline, it has the type of changeable tone that seems to have frustrated some viewers, but if you’re happy to go with it then its a fun mix.

Shin Ma-a provides the central appeal of the film and is the main reason for its charm

There’s a great deal of action in My Mighty Princess – a large number of fight scenes which all incorporate wire-work and CGI. The choreography and effects are reminiscent of the excellent Arahan, although maybe not quite as intense or violent. Some of it is inventive though and its always stylishly performed – check out the way So-hwi puts her friends to bed after a few too many drinks, it’s great stuff. Shin Ma-a acquits herself well in the many action scenes, although ironically given the character she plays doesn’t seem to be a complete natural. It does appear that she performs the majority of the action herself though, something which is apparent throughout. Given that minor criticism (and it is very minor), Shin Ma-a provides the central appeal of the film and is the main reason for its charm. With a natural talent for comedy she’s very funny in every scene that ranges from straight-faced deadpan to all out mugging, My Mighty Princess is worth a watch for Shin Ma-a alone.

The rest of the cast is also very good although, given the uneven structure of the film, some of them don’t get the time that they deserve. On Joo-wan shares some great comedy with Shin Ma-a as well as getting stuck into the action, Yoo Geon gets quite an interesting role as the ice hockey team captain that So-hwi falls for while he is chasing an older woman, then there’s lots of smaller roles from the likes of Lee Dae-geun and Dion Lam which would have benefited from more scenes. There’s a knack for comedy in My Mighty Princess from pretty much everyone involved – often its just spot-on timing, occasionally its just vacant expressions, and sometimes its an inspired moment in the script beautifully delivered – check out the So-hwi’s fight scene while disguised as a boy as an good example.

So the plot for My Mighty Princess has been criticised for being too complicated – something that I don’t really agree with. Refreshingly for this type of film it has the confidence to branch out into several sub-plots before they all become tied in together – something that feels like a rarity when we’re so used to seeing streamlined (i.e. overly simplified) plots and characters. If there’s a criticism of the structure its only that some of the sub-plots are so good and the characters are so strong that it would have been nice to see them fleshed out a little more – but the film is already two hours long, so this is probably due to time constraints, it feels like there may well be additional scenes on the cutting room floor.

My Mighty Princess seems to acknowledge that its not highly original material and so finds interesting and thoughtful ways to present itself – for example it has a brief musical montage scene (which is of course typical of this type of movie) that ties together three – on the face of it – completely different sub-plots, but which cleverly changes the direction and tone of the film. It’s hardly ground breaking stuff but it’s the right way to use these types of moments to add to the film as a whole rather than as just another lazy time filler, which is so often the case. The use of sub-plots and voice-over is also used well – as long as you don’t mind the fact that not everything is spelt out for you (personally I hate it when it is, even if it is a daft comedy) – and on multiple viewings there’s lots of subtle ideas that run throughout.

With a running time of 122 minutes My Mighty Princess never feels like it outstays its welcome. It’s a mixed bag in terms of tone and plot, but this is a welcome attempt at mixing genres from director Kwak Jae-young and although it doesn’t always work its never dull due to the great cast. Call it a guilty pleasure if you like, My Mighty Princess never comes close to the rom-com excellence of My Sassy Girl or quite to the the comedy-action level of Arahan, but taken on its own merits is still a hugely enjoyable bundle of fun. My Mighty Princess is, by turns, funny, silly, clever, slick, clumsy and confused – but I always found it to be charming. So, no, it’s not a smooth ride – it’s not straightforward and it’s uneven from a plotting point of view, but if you’re open to this ‘throw everything into the pot’ type of film then it’s definitely worthy of a recommendation.

무림여대생 (My Mighty Princess)
Directed by Kwak Jae-young
Produced by Ahn Ho-wan, Ji Yong-jun
Written by Shinho Lee, Kwak Jae-yong
Starring Shin Ma-a, On Joo-wan, Yoo Geon, Lee Dae-geun, Dion Lam, Choi Je-seong

My Mighty Princess Image © Prime Entertainment

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