My Sassy Girl

Jun Ji-Hyun & Cha Tae-Hyun... possibly the two biggest reasons to watch this movie.

Directed by Kwak Jae-Yong

South Korea; 2001

137 min. (director’s cut)

Starring Cha Tae-Hyun and Jun Ji-Hyun

In Short: Based on a series of blogs, this romantic comedy is quite possibly South Korea’s most internationally popular film, and it’s not hard to see why. The two leads make for memorable characters, and much of the broad humor and melodrama actually work. However, the film is much longer than it needs to be, and there are a few embarrassingly bad sequences that really should have never made it out of the editing room intact.

Review: I have a very frustrating relationship with the films of Kwak Jae-Yong. Any time I watch a film of his, I always end up enjoying the earlier parts of his films, in the wide-eyed innocence of his young twentysomething protagonists and their romantic endeavors. However, by the end of the film, I always manage to grow tired of his usual tricks and twists, in the end, feeling like I’ve been cheated out of a satisfying experience to the point where I almost want to sue for second-degree attempted emotional manipulation. Since that is not grounds for lawsuit in any court that I’m aware of, I’ll instead spend my time explaining why I bother to keep watching films he’s written and/or directed in the first place:

I actually kind of like this one.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start, however: My Sassy Girl is not an art film. In fact, it pretty much defined the commercial comedy in South Korea for the years since its original release. There are instances of broad humor and melodramatic usages of music aplenty in this film. What makes My Sassy Girl stand out from the rest of the crowd (or in other words, palatable to non-braindead audiences) are the excellent performances from the two leads and the creative “based on a true story” script, with a few fictional twists and turns added in by the director Kwak, who would ironically go on to damage potentially worthy successors to this film by having too damn many twists and turns for their own good.

Cha Tae-Hyun is excellent as the effeminate young protagonist, Kyun-Woo, a wide-eyed innocent twentysomething who gets his own romantic endeavor when a pretty drunk girl calls him “honey” on a subway before promptly collapsing on the floor. That pretty drunk girl is played by Jun Ji-Hyun, who really carries this film. Both tend toward caricature, but it’s hard to imagine this film being anywhere near as enjoyable with any other actors in the leading roles.

Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to the film’s international success is how remarkably the film translates modern South Korean culture to the big screen, not at all in a “Hey-Look-How-Exotic-We-Are-Now-Please-Let-Us-Into-Cannes” type of way. In particular, the film focuses on modern dating rituals, in which the trend toward young women becoming the ones initiating relationships is translated into an all-out reversal of traditional gender roles. The reference to Hwang Sun-won’s influential short story Sonagi (or Rain Shower in English) is an added plus to those familiar with Korean culture.

But for all the good this film contains, there’s enough bad to deter me from making a blanket recommendation for all audiences. There’s one scene in particular, comprised of sped-up footage of the young couple at an amusement park accompanied by a cheesy synthesizer score, which feels like something cribbed directly from a bad made-for-TV movie. There’s another amusement park scene later on in the film which just drags on… and on… and on…

It is worth noting that unlike many films of its ilk, the transition from comedy to melodrama in My Sassy Girl actually feels earned and is handled gently. By the time the film starts asking you to cry, the characters have been developed to the point where they are sympathetic enough that one can care about the outcome of their actions. There is one exception, however, in which the melodrama makes a preemptive strike at the aforementioned amusement park scene that drags on… and on… and on…

It’s hard to talk about My Sassy Girl without taking note of what an empty promise it has been in terms of the careers of its director and lead actress. Kwak Jae-Yong, as mentioned earlier, took the twists and turns that made this film successful and abused the hell out of them in subsequent films. He could easily be compared to M. Night Shyamalan, not only in terms of his love for twists and turns but in the exponential decrease of his critical and popular success over time. For Kwak, this got to the point where his film My Mighty Princess was shelved for years before coming out in spite of the popularity of its actors, and he had to go to Japan (where his god awful Windstruck somehow became a huge hit) to make the overlong (but kind of cute) Cyborg Girl. More disappointing is the career of Jun Ji-Hyun, who after truly carrying this film on her back, went on to star in a string of mediocre-to-awful films, including the aforementioned Windstruck and the live-action adaptation of Blood: The Last Vampire.

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About Adam DiPiazza
I love Peach Snapple.

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