My Scary Girl (달콤, 살벌한 연인, 2006)

A timid college lecturer, Dae-woo, who is smart but has never been in love, meets a mysterious but charming woman, Mi-na. With no skills to win a date, he asks her out awkwardly. To his surprise, she accepts. And as a first time lover, he behaves very unnaturally. However, as they fall in love, Dae-woo discovers some disquieting things about Mi-na. Although she claims to be an intellectual and an artist, she has never heard of Crime and Punishment, nor has she heard of Mondrian although one of his paintings hangs in her living room. But Mi-na has even more terrible secrets.


The need for smaller pictures
While the success of blockbusters as different from one another as the political thriller Hanbando (2006) and the monster film The Host (2006) is watched  with interest by industry insiders, the survival of Korean cinema is still far from assured, and depends less upon huge production costs than upon the ability of studios to come up with modestly-budgeted fare with strong scriptwriting and acting. Critics have been quick to single out last year’s The King and the Clown as an example of how domestic film can tell uniquely Korean stories with a universal message. Two recent low-budget (albeit distinctly more idiosyncratic) films that meet these criteria are the black comedy The Customer is Always Right (2006) and the comedy/romance/thriller My Scary Girl (2006).

Romantic comedies
It should be noted that, excepting the first, none of the films mentioned in the following discussion are straightforward romantic comedies, but often combine drama, thriller, or horror, and often address issues seldom brought up in Hollywood-style comedy or even in dramas: AIDS; homosexuality; prostitution; the Diaspora; national division. These films also showcase the amazing versatility of Korean actors and actresses like Moon So-ri and Park Yong-woo, who cross over from one genre to  another with apparent ease. Far from being the mindless, escapist fare they have become in the UK and in the USA, the Korean romantic comedies discussed here are more likely to appeal to the discerning viewer than to bubble-gum chewing teens.

It would be difficult to name a more tasteless and insulting movie than My Sassy Girl (2001), Korea’s highest grossing comedy at the time of its release, which went on to become a smash hit in Japan and China, encouraging a number of spin-offs, including a US remake due out sometime in 2007. Supporters of the film point out the incredible range of lead actress Jun Ji-hyun — an incontestable fact, if vomiting on subway passengers and blurting out “Do you wanna die?” every 5 minutes is considered pushing the boundaries of expressiveness. The following year gave us Yu Ha’s Marriage is a Crazy Thing (2002), which impressed with its excellent script and showcased the wonderfully natural performances of Eom Jeong-hwa (Princess Aurora) and Woo Seong-kam (The King and the Clown). This romantic comedy tinged with almost unbearable sadness towers over the rest through its uncompromising honesty, laying bare the conflicting feelings of a couple who meet on a blind date, and the consequences of a young man’s fear of commitment. If you buy only one romantic comedy, this should be it.

Last year’s You Are My Sunshine (2005), which began uncannily like an episode from the 1960s TV series Green Acres, switched gears midway to become a harrowing study of a woman trying to escape her dark past, and a man’s unconditional love for her. Effective direction kept the occasionally overwrought melodramatic moments from ruining the story, and Jeon Do-yeon’s electrifying performance stood out as one of the year’s best. The Wedding Campaign (2005), about two farmers who set off to a strange land to find themselves a wife, benefitted from stunning shots of exotic Uzbekistan, and dealt obliquely with genuine issues, including the flight of young people from rural areas, national division, and the seldom broached topic of the Diaspora population of Uzbek-Koreans. Unfortunately, the movie also paints a caricature of farmers as ignorant, hard-drinking and chronically shy. The movie also introduced us to the talented actress Ae Su. Rules of Dating (2005), and stars Hae-il Park and Hye-jeong Kang. Along with the political black comedy The President’s Last Bang (2005), this was the year’s strongest offering.

This year’s When Romance Meets Destiny started off promisingly enough (with a quirky end-of-school campfire that goes haywire), but was soon marred by sentimental flashbacks and predictable locker room jokes, which would have been fine had we been dealing with teens, but these were 27-year-old men. Essentially divided into 3 episodes, the first introduces us to the young couple during the man’s senior year at high school, then launches forward to their chance meeting at a wedding he happens to be photographing. The second episode revolves around the man’s hard-drinking younger brother, who falls in love with a woman he meets at a marathon. I confess to having found the main couple so lacking in vitality that maintaining any concentration at this point was almost futile. Though I’ll admit to having lost interest at this juncture, the third episode concerns a mix-up involving a basket of Valentine chocolates. In spite of being disappointing, the picture has some agreeable moments, and the director will be one to watch.

Having seen the dreadful trailers for The Art of Seduction (2006) and Bewitching Attraction (2006), the latter starring the gifted actress Moon So-ri, I decided to pass. Then there was this year’s surprise hit, My Scary Girl, shot for a mere  900,000,000 won, drawing a respectable 2 million viewers, and which screened last month at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival. While many critics have singled out Park’s performance for attention, I found Choi’s understated acting quite suited to her role, and Jo Eun-ji (The President’s Last Bang) excels as the alcoholic double-crossing friend with a heart of gold. Like The Customer is Always Right, another modestly budgeted (4 M won) picture, My Scary Girl focuses on the essential—a solid script, great acting and simple but effective sets. The DVD looks superb, with no compression problems, aliasing or digital artifacts. Recommended to all blood types.

South Korea | 2006 | Directed by Son Jae-gon | Starring Park Yong-woo, Choi Kang-hee, Jo Eun-ji (Baek Jang-mi)

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