My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀, Kwak Jae-young: 2001)
On his way home college student Kyun-woo notices a young girl in the subway station who appears to be too near the edge of the tracks. Almost drunk to the point of unconsciousness, she barely notices Kyun-woo moving her back to safety. On the train journey itself the young girl causes a scene due to her drunken behaviour and, just before she passes out, she refers to the nearby Kyun-woo as ‘Honey’. Reluctantly taking responsibility for the her as the other passengers believe he is her partner, Kyun-woo looks after the girl, not realising that this will be the start of a strange relationship…
Note: Anyone in a rush or allergic to grumblings about the general state of romantic comedies can skip the First Half and go straight to the Second Half where the review starts proper…
Of the different genres found in cinema, the one that I often find myself struggling with the most is the romantic comedy. Sure, there’s films that fit into this category that I’ve enjoyed a lot, but their formulaic nature isn’t something that particularly excites me or that I particularly look forward to. Unlike the action or the horror genres – which utilize their own stock plots and characters but which can place a great emphasis on special effects, pacing and off-screen events – the romantic comedy is by its nature dependent on relationships: between the characters in the film, and between events onscreen and the audience watching it. It always seems to me that there’s a lot to trip over in a romantic comedy. Firstly there’s the plot which is often so formulaic that it falls into four fairly clearcut sections: i) two individuals meet and either don’t like each other or one – or both – of the two parties don’t really recognize that they like each other, ii) these two characters decide that they want to be together one way or another, iii) something keeps them from being together, either events in the world around them (jobs, families) or – more likely and annoyingly from a viewers point of view – some totally random and usually nonsensical misunderstanding, and for the final reel – iv) overcoming all the odds (or their own stupidity) the two leads become a couple, tears flow and the credits roll. Of course there’s variations on this formula, but for the overwhelming majority of romantic comedies I believe this covers ‘structure’.
So, after the plot there’s that small issue of actors. Obviously, essential to a successful romantic comedy is the need to like the people on screen and to actually hope that they’ll eventually get together and be happy. If you don’t like one or both of the people playing the roles onscreen the romance is dead in the water. Ideally – and this sounds terribly cheesy, but it’s true – the audience should fall in love with the characters while they are doing so with each other. Too often this fails because the casting director assumes that you already love the character that Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts or whoever the (often vacant in personality) vessel is playing, simply because you love Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts (incidentally and unapologetically two actors that I can’t stand).
Finally (at least in this brief summary, you’ll be pleased to hear) we need a good strong script and some assured direction. Too often romantic comedies assume the structure just has to be filled in with something vaguely ‘nice’ and that exposition heavy dialogue – which is supposed to equate to characterization and grab the audiences sympathy – will do, rather than actually going to the effort of creating naturally likeable characters. Also there’s the assumption that pedestrian direction equals ‘invisibility’ on the directors / editors part. It doesn’t. It equals overlong, badly paced, bum-numbing and bland cinema, devoid of character or sparkle. If there’s one thing a romantic comedy should have, it’s a sparkle, an energy, some excitement. If people and romance in the real world in general was as bland and boring as we see in many of these romantic comedies, then we probably wouldn’t bother with them, so it’s got to have something to grab you and pull you in and keep the excitement going. Otherwise it’s not a romantic comedy, it’s a marriage.
So, when I first developed an interest in Korean cinema (and before I was aware just how romantic-comedy heavy Korean cinema is!) one of the titles that was recommended to me alot was My Sassy Girl. A record-breaking smash-hit film My Sassy Girl became the highest grossing comedy ever in Korea on its release in 2001 – as well as faring well overseas (a successful television version was made in Japan). Needless to say – illustrated by my ramble so far – the prospect of a ‘blockbuster (i.e. usually middle-of-the-road-bland) romantic comedy which totals 137minutes in length, this being the Directors Cut, was not something I was too excited about diving into, and after getting hold of a copy of the DVD it sat on my shelf unwatched for a year. This – I am embarrassed to say, but not afraid to admit – was my loss. My Sassy Girl is a great romantic comedy. For anyone who has ever sat through one of those by-the-numbers romantic comedy borefests – or even made one – this is how it should be done…
Based on the real-life experiences of Kim Ho-sik – who wrote them as a blog online before eventually publishing them as a novel – My Sassy Girl (the literal translation of the Korean title is ‘The Bizarre Girl’) is the story of a man entering into a modern day relationship, one that one the surface doesn’t particularly conform to his idea of a romantic partnering or the male / female dynamic as he understands it. Providing a twist on the usual boy-girl-relationship roles, My Sassy Girl establishes itself and manages to bend, test and threaten to break the format of this particular genre of cinema by giving us a realistic strong female character who is neither a lady-like pushover or strong in the way that is dependent on the vapid notions of ‘girl power’, but who is instead a fully formed character in her own right who deals with her life as she sees it. It’s a difficult one to pull off (or even to explain here when you’re trying to keep it short) but My Sassy Girl does so with ease – and she’s the central point that everything else hangs off of.
My Sassy Girl conforms to the unofficial structure of the romantic comedy in the best way possible. Divided into three parts, all of which are flagged by a text caption (‘First Half’, ‘Second Half’ and ‘Overtime’) and which sort of more or less cover the areas you would expect them to, My Sassy Girl has plenty of ideas to cover well-trodden ground in new ways. In the first part the couple meet and don’t immediately seem to click (he doesn’t like drunk girls, she says guys shouldn’t wear pink), in part two the dramatic side of things encroaches more on proceedings as the relationship threats to become more than a playful friendship, while with part three (the shortest) concludes everything. Throughout this fairly rigid structure the film seemingly changes direction several times but never loses focus on the central couple. Without giving away too many details, there’s an unexpected detour in a fairground, some great fantasy sequences (the girl is a budding screenwriter, the ideas of which we see played on out onscreen) and dates with other people that are, well, surprising. It’s all perfectly paced and so despite a fairly lengthy running time My Sassy Girl never feels like it’s dragging and the plot always feels organic and never laboured. Of course it’s not all down to the structure, there’s that small issue of the cast…
Cha Tae-hyun is Kyun-woo – a fairly reserved college student with modest expectations of the world around him. The central protagonist of My Sassy Girl, his voiceover eases us into his world and explains a little bit about him like what he’s looking for in life, like wanting to meet a girl like the ones in the romantic comics, and things like not wanting his Auntie to set him up with girls. Kyun-woo is about as ‘everyman’ as it gets and Cha Tae-hyun is excellent throughout. Underplaying the role, the film becomes more dependent on his performance, often without dialogue, and less on the voiceover as it becomes less necessary for him to explain everything that he’s thinking. It’s a solid performance and hard to believe that this was his first major role. As good as Cha Tae-hyun is though, and as well set in place as the rest of the elements of the film are, My Sassy Girl‘s success is largely down to one thing – Jeon Ji-hyun. Well and truly the star of the show, Jeon Ji-hyun as the young girl (she’s never given a name in the film) who Kyun-woo finds himself lumbered with steals every scene that she’s in from the moment her drunken, drowsy face appears with her hair in her mouth. This isn’t your typical female lead role. She’s a loud and occasionally leery young woman who appears to be slightly unstable and who always speaks her mind. Well, if she’s not doing that then she’s just as likely to be found playing games as an excuse to inflict some mild violence on Kyun-woo – or maybe just inflicting the violence without the pretence of a game. Jeon Ji-hyun’s performance in My Sassy Girl invigorates the whole thing with a real energy, and it’s not just a ‘wild and wacky’ affair either, she manages to pull off the drama as well as the shouting. There’s also a real natural chemistry between the two leads, which has you rooting for them both as soon as they appear.
The supporting cast is also pretty great – Han Jin-hee gets a couple of great scenes as the girls father, Seo Dong-won is good as an AWOL soldier and Song Ok-sook gets to scream and shout as Kyun-woo’s mother.
Written (as an adaptation from the novel by Kim Ho-sik) and directed by Kwak Jae-young as his first film in seven years, My Sassy Girl is a totally solid effort. Along with managing the great cast the script is solid throughout – there’s some great lines (‘Wanna die?’, ‘Drink coffee!’), some excellent running gags (such as Kyun-woo returning to the same hotel, his repeated arrests and being bullying in jail) as well as some interwoven themes such as the passing of time and is playful with not only its own genre but with others such as the Wuxia and sci-fi. It’s only really in the films closing that it conforms to the conventional romantic comedy and a level of melodrama rears its inevitable head. It’s a slightly conservative closure (I don’t want to give away what happens but its an interesting subject for those male / female roles that My Sassy Girl toys with) but is is to be expected and still a rewarding experience.
An engaging, genuinely likeable and involving romantic comedy, My Sassy Girl not only ticks all of the requisite genre boxes but also carefully moulds them into something worthwhile with pitch-perfect performances – particularly from Jeon Ji-hyun – and an intelligent, witty script. The final reel may prove to be more formulaic and tidy than the rest of the piece, but no-one should be opposed to this type of satisfying tidying of the loose ends when the ride has been this fun. My Sassy Girl just shows that the romantic comedy doesn’t have to be a heartless experience and is a highly recommended, if not essential, piece of viewing.
엽기적인 그녀 (My Sassy Girl)
Directed by Kwak Jae-young
Produced by Shin Chul
Written by Kim Ho-sik, Kwak Jae-yong
Starring Jeon Ji-hyun, Cha Tae-hyun, Han Jin-hee, Seo Dong-won, Song Ok-sook
My Sassy Girl Image © Shin Cine