January 16, 2003
In 2002, DreamWorks had a very successful outing with their capable remake of the Japanese film The Ring. With that in hand, the company has also purchased the US remake rights for another smash Asian success, the hilarious and endearing Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl.
Though this space has been known to lament about the tendency for Hollywood to take foreign material and turn it into inferior product, during the last year there were a handful of films that used the formula in a far more positive manner than usual. The remakes of Insomnia, Solaris and the aforementioned Ring were all handled in a way that translated the material into a rubric acceptable to American audiences without trampling on the essence of the original. DreamWorks especially comported themselves well, with last year’s fine theatrical version of The Ring being followed with the recent news that the March 4th DVD of that Naomi Watts vehicle will also be accompanied by the simultaneous release of the Region 1 version of Hideo Nakata’s Japanese hit. Hopefully, this will lead many who saw the Hollywood take on the story to try out the import, and having shown good care with this Asian film last year, one has to feel a bit better about the chances that they won’t completely ruin the delightful treat that is Jae-young Kwak’s My Sassy Girl.
The essence of the film involves the interactions between college student Kyun-woo (Tae-hyun Cha) and a nameless, beautiful girl (Ji-hyun Jun) that he encounters at the train station one night. She’s drunk beyond belief, and Kyun-woo at first saves her from being crushed by an oncoming train. Then, during the subsequent train ride, he ends up being forced to take charge of this inebriated woman - as her last act before passing out cold is to look at the hapless bystander and mutter "Honey!", leading all the other passengers in the train to believe that she is Kyun-woo’s girlfriend. Initially, he tries to simply abandon the unconscious girl in the train station, but his conscience gets the best of him and he decides instead to take her to a hotel where she can recover. From there the machinations unfurl, with Kyun-woo watching his world go awry as he tries to come to terms with this strange young woman. She is bossy, curt and given to violent outbursts directed towards either the poor protagonist himself or random strangers who offend her sensibilities in some way. But beneath the harsh exterior of this seeming sociopath there appears to lurk a vulnerable soul, and Kyun-woo finds himself drawn to her and eventually hopes that he can somehow heal her desperate inner sorrow.
This cursory plot summary does little to convey just how bright and intelligent a movie this is, mostly because to go into any more detail might spoil some of the great joys of the sharp and finespun script. Suffice it to say that the relationship between these two is certainly no smooth road, and the final outcome of their offbeat interaction remains in doubt until the final frames. Along the way, the film moves through all kinds of standard romantic comedy trappings, but in a twisted manner that often stands convention on its head. Moments of hilarity alternate with touching melodrama, and though the mood veers into treacle a time or two, the whole is paced so well and the two principals are so engaging that it’s impossible not to cheer for them.
Moving through moments of parody, slapstick and drama, My Sassy Girl’s two hours move along briskly, with the inventive turns of the plot and the fantastic acting of the two protagonists carrying the venture. Though as noted above there is a scene or two that is somewhat sappy - Asian film audiences are far more accepting of overwrought romanticism than their counterparts here in North America - and one does need to absorb an auditory dose of cheesy Asian pop along the way, the heartfelt nature of the film is such that these seeming encumbrances play well within the context of the whole. Also worth noting is the film’s visual style, a clean and colorful mise-en-scene that places the characters within a setting that underlines their actions just perfectly. Ji-hyun Jun especially benefits from this, often being lit in a striking manner that revels in her stunning features and helps to capture the wounded essence of her angry beauty.
But far from being simply just another pretty face, the sumptuous dramatic talents of this young actress are on display throughout the course of the film as she drags her poor compatriot through their myriad adventures. She is note-perfect in portraying the domineering acts of this protagonist as a cover up for the pain that she holds inside, and in fact it is the scenes where this hurt persona comes to the surface that the movie achieves some of its greatest triumphs. In a film so dominated by the two main characters - there are some extraneous friends and parents, but they are little more than background scenery for the principals - a poor choice in casting either of the leads might have sunk the entire venture. Luckily, both the "sassy girl" herself and her counterpart Tae-hyun Cha are utterly enchanting, which brings an added depth to the proceedings and allows the cleverness of the screenplay to shine through in both humor and sadness.
In the end, My Sassy Girl flourishes under the deft, assured hand of first-time director Jae-young Kwak, with its delicious screenplay brought warmly to life by two top-notch actors who help make the material both touching and fun. Drama and comedy are here kept in perfect equilibrium, with both areas getting enough attention so that neither dominates but both are emphasized. The sprightly pacing and empathetic nature of the filmmaking make it entertaining throughout, and the huge charisma and talent of the two leads just can’t be ignored. It’s near impossible not to care about this couple as they work their way through their strange relationship, and since the outcome is never assured you can’t help but find yourself rooting for these two crazy kids. If the future American remake of this excellent Asian romantic comedy can keep hold of even half of the spellbinding chemistry and amusing attraction of this sparkling film, then DreamWorks should have another hit on its hands. In the meantime, however, perhaps some of the attention sure to be later brought to bear on that domestic version can be directed towards this vibrant and effusive Korean original. This film is easily good enough to make the effort worth your while.