My Teacher, Mr Kim (선생 김봉두, Jang Gyu-seong: 2003)

Kim Bong-du – the ‘Mr Kim’ of the title – is a good teacher but with little sense of responsibility and a complete lack of morals when it comes to money. When his actions embarrass the school he is employed by, he is offered one chance to redeem himself – to accept a position in a school in a rural village…

A lightweight comedy drama which doesn’t necessarily go the way that you might expect it to – largely because it doesn’t really go very far anywhere at all – My Teacher, Mr Kim set itself up in a way that seems obvious to audiences as an unreliable teacher is moved to a new school where, over time, he learns to take his position seriously, but then does little else but to join the dots. With bundles of potential in the set-up and then very little else, the overemotional climax that we’re given seems like a let down. My Teacher, Mr Kim takes a long time in getting there and doesn’t have a whole lot to show for it on the way. It’s not all bad though, My Teacher, Mr Kim does have a handful of things going for it – although these again highlight how much of a missed opportunity it feels. Firstly, the performances are great. In the lead role as the irresponsible Mr Kim is the likeable Cha Seung-won (Kick The Moon) and it’s a role that pushes him just away from direct comedy just enough for him to show some sparks of dramatic ability. Then there’s Byeon Hee-bong (The Host) who is always a pleasure to watch, and he gets a fair amount of screen time as the feared villager who decides that he would like to become an educated man. Seong Ji-roo is also excellent as the school janitor who manges to rub the city teacher up the wrong way before he’s even arrived at his destination. And of course where would a story about a school be without a worthy bunch of kids – all played perfectly well and to saccharine-sweet effect.

Then there’s the cinematography. Taking full advantage of its rural setting, My Teacher, Mr Kim always looks great, and some of the landscapes are nothing short of beautiful. Painting a melancholic and nostalgic feel, the film has been given a highly glossed look that makes the village appear to be nothing short of idyllic. Director Jang Gyu-seong incorporated some of his own experiences of living the country life and it’s here that there’s a real warmth to be found. Where My Teacher, Mr Kim falls flat is in a script that fails to capture the warmth of the on-screen imagery and which initially seems to be walking a line between comedy and drama – but which ends up delivering neither – and in its pedestrian tone and pacing which take too long to deliver too little. There’s a gentle streak of irony that runs throughout My Teacher, Mr Kim in relation to the city teacher trying to convince the children that relocating to Seoul is the best thing for them, but it’s only mined for a few laughs and sadly never pushed on its potential for social commentary.

Perhaps best viewed as a romanticised portrait of a rural upbringing, My Teacher, Mr Kim suggests throughout that the village is a more ideal lifestyle than the city, but that the locals need some basic education. With only one real exception My Teacher, Mr Kim avoids jokes at the villagers expense. There’s only one faintly patronising moment when Mr Kim arrives to solve a local dispute, providing a solution to a problem that is described as ‘clever’ but it’s really such a basic and simple solution that it suggests that the farmers are actually idiots. Fortunately this is really the only time that it slips into such unwarranted cheap laughs and the majority of the laughs (this may be an overstatement) and the moralising are at the expense of Mr Kim and his city lifestyle – accepting bribes, drinking (and, more importantly,  unable to handle it) and generally shirking his responsibilities.

Although it clearly struck a cord with audiences on its domestic release as it proved to be a minor hit (at the time audiences chose this over the amazing Save The Green Planet) , My Teacher, Mr Kim is unfocused in exactly what it is aiming to provide and comes across as a failed comedy drama but with a sweet, nostalgic view towards a simpler village life. There’s some pleasure to be had from the performances – and it looks great – but it’s a pretty shallow affair that runs way too long at two hours.

선생 김봉두 (My Teacher, Mr Kim)
Directed by Jang Gyu-seong
Produced by Kim Mi-hee
Written by Jang Kyu-sung, Lee Won-hyeong
Starring Cha Seung-won, Seong Ji-roo, Byeon Hee-bong, Lee Jae-eung, Kim Eung-soo

My Teacher, Mr Kim Image © Good Movie Company