Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: Happy Ero Christmas / 해피 에로 크리스마스 (2003)

Cinema on the Park’s 2012 lineup closed out with the wonderfully titled ‘Happy Ero Christmas’, a movie which pretty much demands a viewing just based on its name alone. The only movie by director Lee Geong-dong, the movie stars Cha Tae-hyeon (Speedy Scandal / 과속스캔들) as a down on his luck patrolman and Kim Seon-ah (She’s On Duty / 잠복근무) as a shy bowling alley attendant, whom as with any Korean romantic comedy, somehow have to end up together.

During this period of his career, made just a couple of years after the seminal ‘My Sassy Girl / 엽기적인 그녀’, Tae-hyeon was still being typecast as the underachiever with a heart of gold, and in this particular movie he seems to be playing a carbon copy of his character from ‘My Sassy Girl’ more than ever. Still, considering it was the kind of goofy charm that he pulls of so well that lead to his popularity, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.

‘Happy Ero Christmas’ seems somewhat confused as to what kind of romantic comedy it wants to be though. Check out any plot synopsis on the internet, and it’ll no doubt explain that it’s the story of a patrolman & a gangster vying for the affections of the girl who works at the local bowling alley. However director Geong-dong sometimes seems like he wants to create an ensemble piece, similar to the British movie ‘Love Actually’ which came out the same year, by introducing us to a selection of other characters as well.

There’s a couple of teenage schoolboys who launch various schemes to get female attention, there’s the bowling alley attendant’s friend who wants to win an upcoming beauty pageant, not to mention there’s the film-crew attempting to make the titular adult movie suggested in the title, the hilariously named ‘Happy Sexmas’. While each of these other plot threads sound promising, they seem to meaninglessly meander in and out of the main plot concerning Tae-hyeon and Seon-ah, so that in the end they don’t feel so much a part of the movies flow as they do a distraction to it.

Still, despite the somewhat shoehorned fashion these sub-plots appear, they do earn points for providing some of the funniest stand alone moments of the movie. The tale the two teenage boys share with each other of how fishermen keep away sexual frustration while at sea had about half the audience laughing (well…possibly just me & my friend), while the rest shifted a little uncomfortably in their seats, and one of the beauty pageant members special talent with an egg is also a moment of comedy gold. Ultimately though, these elements drive the movie to a bloated 110 minute run-time, several of which could have benefited from being left on the cutting room floor.

Thankfully the central plot is competently handled, taking place in a small hot-spring town, the local gangster Park Yeong-goo (Attack the Gas Station / 주유소 습격사건) plays the love rival to Tae-hyeon’s bumbling cop, falling for the same girl after an unfortunately timed phlegm attack lands on his head. Alarmingly this was the second movie that was shown during December to feature a guy falling for a girl after she essentially spat on him from a great height, the first being ‘Cyrano Agency /시라노;연애조작단’. Could it be a convention of Korean cinema that the high brow critics have managed to overlook? Look for my book ‘I Spit on Your Head: 10 Years of Korean Romantic Comedies’, not coming to a bookshelf near you anytime soon.

Screenwriter Lee Eon-hee’s script goes through the standard paces but keeps things light and pleasant so the movie never becomes a chore to watch. Interestingly when it comes to the inevitable showdown between cop and gangster, the fight is played alarmingly realistically, with Yeong-goo punching Tae-hyeon in the face until he becomes bloodied and bruised. I’ve seen this trait in Korean comedy movies before, the tendency to throw in quite brutal violence in what is supposed to be a light and fluffy comedic situation, and certainly to a western audience I think it always comes off as a little uncomfortable. I’ll never forget watching ‘My Wife is a Gangster /조폭 마누라’ for the first time, and remember being a little shocked at the fact one minute I was laughing at a gangster trying to give mouth to mouth resuscitation to a cat, then the next a pregnant woman was being repeatedly kicked in the chest.

Perhaps it’s representative of movies from that era of Korean cinema in the early 2000s, when it was still finding its feet to establish the look and feel that it does today. Certainly later romantic comedy efforts that combine action and humour, such as ‘My Girlfriend is an Agent / 7급 공무원’, balance the comedy and fisty cuffs in a much more appropriate manner than their earlier counterparts. All in all ‘Happy Ero Christmas’, while by no means essential viewing, is still a pleasant enough diversion, and where else can you find a movie that combines the festive season with adult movie making!?

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