Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Sassy Girl (2001): Sweet is Not Stupid

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My Sassy Girl is a Korean comedy with a really drippy theme song (called 'I Believe') about a charming but willfully difficult young girl, and the boy who loves her but can't work out if they stand a chance of ever being happy together. It often seems aimed at teenagers and occasionally resembles an old episode of The Benny Hill Show, with quack-quack music and speeded-up chases. At other times it's like an MTV promo clip, or one of those ads for expensive brandy you see all across Asia (where the perfect-looking man courts a perfect-looking woman in a perfect-looking setting). The scene halfway through the film with the suicidal soldier is a drag (he's not very convincing as an actor), and the dramatisations of the Terminator and Samurai stories the Sassy Girl has written fall flat.

So why exactly am I recommending it? I guess because pure enjoyment has to count for something when you rate films and I think that, along with other far more serious films like Waking Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's one of the very best films of the early 2000’s. It's not cerebral like those other movies, but in a way it's something far harder to achieve: a very sweet romantic comedy which is also hilarious. Perhaps you have to have a particular interest in or liking for the Far East to appreciate it as much as I did, but if you search around the web you'll see I'm by no means alone in being bowled over by this film. (It was also a big hit in its home country and elsewhere in Asia).

If you're going to like this film at all you're going to laugh your head off in the first 15 minutes. If not, then it's not your sort of film. There's a scene five minutes in, set on a Seoul subway train, with a very drunken sassy girl, which is a classic as far as I'm concerned, and one a little while later in a restaurant which is almost as funny. One highlight further into the film is when the boy is given a condom by an anti-AIDS campaigner in the street, only to have to fish it out of his pocket later in front of the girl's father. All the scenes with the father are hilarious, in fact, because he's the model for the binge-drinking the sassy girl indulges in.

The main attraction, however, is just the two young actors themselves and the brilliant chemistry they display throughout. (Her name is Ji-hyun Jun  - she's a well-known object of adoration in Korea – and his is Tae-hyun Cha. The film was directed by Jae-young Kwak). She's comically bullying, and exasperating, and ridiculously moody, and he's a young man with an incredibly expressive face, suffering through all kinds of trials and tribulations for her sake. She leads them into many crazy situations and her voice often rises uncontrollably in anger; that alone will bring on fits of giggles in many viewers.

The film looks wonderfully refreshing just because it faithfully reproduces the look of so many Asian cities; elegant Japanese-made taxis ferrying beautiful, well dressed people around town, or clean subway trains with people sitting quietly. When 'I Believe' is played as the girl searches for the boy in a subway station she looks impossibly stylish in her designer clothes. But the film is wise enough, after indulging us with such prettiness, to bring things back down to earth with its own quirky sense of humour; when they are reunited and hug she immediately gives him a whopping great slap across the face. In the coda to the film - 'overtime' as it's called - there's a surprise twist, which makes sense if you've been paying attention earlier in the film and so doesn't feel tacked on. It’s just one more example of an Asian ethos that we Westerners sometimes find it hard to get our heads around: being sweet doesn’t necessarily mean being stupid. 

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