Monday, July 22, 2013

Korean Cinema and My Sassy Girl: A Personal Retrospective

In the lead up to the 100th edition of Cinema on the Park, where the Korean Cultural Office will screen the beloved rom-com MY SASSY GIRL, blogger Joseph Sampson takes a look back at the effect the film had on him in a personal retrospective on Kwak Jae-yong's classic film. A film that for so many of us was the beginning of our fanaticism for Korean culture, its a great article to leads us in to this special evening taking place at Event Cinemas, Geogre St. If you haven't got your ticket yet, there are just a few seats left, so book yours today. Watching the film on the big screen will be a big moment for many Korean film fans so don't miss out. Read on below!

One of the attractions of Korean cinema is the fresh approach to both narrative and technique that the Korean film industry brings to the table. Get the right Korean film in front of someone who in unfamiliar with Korean cinema, and chances are, they will become a convert. That’s what happened to me. It took quite a while and a bit of doing for me to see my first Korean film, but once I did, I never looked back.

When I was in my second last year of high school in 2002, I was reading the ‘The (TV) Guide’ in the Sydney Morning Herald, a section of the Monday edition of that paper which is sadly now largely consigned to memory. One of the reviews that I read in The Guide during that sunny free period in the library was of a Korean movie called IlMare, memorable to me for its Italian title and for what I instantly recognised as a clever and interesting plot.

Il Mare is a 2000 Korean movie which was later remade in vastly inferior Hollywood form (I do not say this for the imagined hipster cred, but because the remake is really nowhere near on-par with the original.  Even the house is not as cool). Two lonely people living in the same house, but two years apart, connect with each other through the accidentally discovered medium of letters sent through a time-warp in a letterbox. Never mind about the physics of the thing, the characters and the now-somewhat-alien means of getting to know and to love a person purely through handwritten letters are what make this movie stand out. Back in 2002, I didn’t end up seeing Il Mare, but I didn’t forget about it, and made a mental note to see it when I had a chance. 

Months passed and the HSC rolled around. Then, university started and work started and I found myself, in mid-2004, doing an assignment late at night – the night before it was due, as usual. For some reason, I also found myself doing the inevitable late-night wiki-walk. Somehow, I typed in Il Mare; which led to getting some info on the cast; which led to reading up on actress Jeon Ji-Hyun; which led to reading a lot about another small film of hers, the 2001 movie My Sassy Girl. I really should have made a note of that fateful day.

The more I read about My Sassy Girl, the more I was intrigued. However, things got in the way (‘things’ being my assignment and other commitments). That Friday, though, after finishing my work in the City, I wandered down to ChinatownChinatown was my salvation. It was (and is) my favourite place in Sydney.  At a time when very little mainstream distribution of Asian movies occurred (even less than at present), Chinatown was a Mecca for people looking for Asian movies. In my greenhorn days in 2004, I wandered around Little Hay and Sussex Street, discovering the little haunts and curios that are now places I call home.  My mind had reverted to a single-minded search for Il Mare and I went from store to store looking for that movie. All to no avail. No one had it. I eventually found a copy in one store, bought it, went home and discovered that it had no subtitles, so I high-tailed it back to the city and returned it. 

Then, in the shopping centre levels of Market City, something familiar caught my eye. As I look at the DVD case now, it is much more worn out – from 7 years of being carted around in bags, two major moves, hesitant lends to friends and acquaintances – but though it is a little damaged and beaten up, it still gives me a little thrill like the one I had when I first bought it. My Sassy Girl. My favourite movie. The movie I have seen more times than any other.  My first great and torrid love affair with Asian cinema. 

I have never reviewed My Sassy Girl before. It just seems too big to compass in the short space of a few words. Even this won’t really be a review, more of a reflection. Usually, when I have foisted My Sassy Girl upon my friends, it has just been with the gushing acclamation: “You need to watch this. It is incredible.” During my remaining years of university, I many times commandeered the little AV room in the library, ostensibly for academic purposes, and ushered in groups of my friends to watch it with me in between classes. They still bring up those occasions in conversation, clearly scarred by the experience. 

Since first seeing My Sassy Girl, I have watched hundreds of Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Filipino movies and TV serials, but to me, everything still comes back to MSG. And it clearly isn’t just me who has been won over. My Sassy Girl made instant megastars of Jeon Ji-Hyun and Cha Tae-Hyun, with both actors acknowledging in interviews the debt they owe to the defining hit of their careers.  The film has been adapted, remade and re-released all over the world. Japan made a TV series (starring the lovely Tanaka Rena as The Girl) out of the story. Hollywood remade the film in a disappointing direct-to-DVD adaptation starring Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford. The Philippines saw the release of a Tagalog-dubbed version of the original in domestic cinemas in 2005.  A Bollywood version was produced in 2008, entitled Ugly Aur Pagli.  In 2010, a mainland Chinese cash-in ‘sequel’, boldly titled My Sassy Girl 2 was released, which unfortunately bore no resemblance to the original barring dominant female leads.  Even the tiny nation of Bhutan got in on the act with the 2006 movie Laywang Ngyen Gi Meto - The Rose which is a faithful remake of the original Korean movie.

MSG was the highest grossing Korean film of 2001 and remains the highest grossing Korean comedy of all time (as of time of writing). It reinforced the power of the Hallyu wave in Asia and other regions, doing for Korean movies what Autumn In My Heart was doing during the same period for Korean television serials. I won’t pretend to be able to explain the film’s appeal.  But there are a number of things which stood out to me and which capture the excitement of Korean cinema. 

My Sassy Girl is based on an internet novel by Kim Ho Sik, detailing his experiences with a girl he met by chance on a train while she was extremely drunk. Unfortunately, even when sober, the Girl (who is never named in the film) proves to be a dictatorial, often violent, girlfriend to the protagonist (who is named Gyeon-Woo in the film), but her underlying pain draws him to her and convinces him to continue subject to her depredations. The film is intricately plotted and moves along at a quick pace, covering a lengthy period in the pair’s relationship. While it is a long movie, it doesn’t allow the viewer to slip into boredom because there is always something, or a number of things, on-screen to engage the mind.

My Sassy Girl is hard to assign to a broad genre. Admittedly, it can be classified as a romantic-comedy, but it is bigger than that. It seems to straddle a variety of genres, blending tropes from romance and comedy (obviously) with action, melodrama, thriller, science-fiction and gross-out comedy. From out of nowhere, something off-the-wall and detailed will hit you, showing just how well-planned the movie is. For instance, early in the movie there is an old newspaper clipping on the wall of a hotel showing the birth of quintuplets.  Then, as the movie unfolds, one particular actor shows up in five different roles, including as the owner of the hotel where the quintuplets article was displayed… There are also direct shout-outs to great Korean and overseas blockbusters, with parodies of the Korean film Sonagi (The Shower), the Terminator movies (updated with The Matrix references) and Ashes of Time, all of which provide yet more clues into the troubled psyche of the Girl. There are so many aspects of this movie which reward repeated viewing, not least of which is its lively sense of the bizarre.

The movie’s other strengths include its wholly Korean mix of cheeky irreverence and traditional values, and the genuine emotional connections that the characters are able to form with each other and, by extension, the audience. The film comes across as much more sincere than the more superficial fare that conventional cinema offers, and it does not sacrifice plot and character to cliché or popular opinion. The above comments can be applied to a great many Korean releases, which outshine other offerings with their originality, innovation and the integrity to stick to a point, or stay true to a character, despite the demands of populism or narrative expedience.

As yet, My Sassy Girl has not achieved an official Australian release. As such, my old Chinatown copy is still doing service. Hopefully, Madman or another outlet will put us out of our misery and release a good edition with meaningful extras, such as a subtitled commentary by the director and stars, deleted scenes, etc.  Frankly, with the cult following that the film already has, the myriad imitators (but no surpassers) and the quality of the work itself, an Australian DVD release – appropriately tricked out with all the extras – could not fail.

So that is how My Sassy Girl was my gateway drug – my means of entry into Asian cinema and culture generally. It almost didn’t happen. If I hadn’t wiled away my study time in high school and university, maybe it would not have happened at all. With Australia gradually opening up to the Asian movie market, both as a nation of consumers (by way of fantastic film festivals such as KOFFIA and the JFF, as well as the folks at Madman Entertainment and SBS) and as a venue for filmmakers to create their visions (I’m thinking of the recent Korean movie A Million and the 2006 Japanese film Crying Out Love In the Centre of the World), it shouldn’t take a miracle to make an Aussie Asian cinema neophyte.

In late-2004, I finally found Il Mare (with English subtitles) in Chinatown. In fact, I see it in practically every Chinatown DVD shop I go into nowadays – which sort of makes me feel warm inside, when I think about how hard it was for me to find a copy those years ago.  I get the feeling that things have progressed by leaps and bounds over just a few short years.

Seeing the Korean Film Festival in Australia returning as an annual event makes me feel excited and giddy as well. You know how thrilling it is, when you find that lots of people love the things you love? Sitting in a dark, crowded room watching a Korean-language movie with the English subtitles on – each film I see at the film festival is like being back in the AV room in the library: the same magic, but on a much bigger scale.  And when I reflect on how far Asian cinema has come in Australia, how far I have come as an adherent to it, and how grand the prospects yet remain, it makes me very happy indeed.

By Joseph Sampson


  1. Great article, and one which took me back to when I first moved to Sydney at the end of 2003.

    At the time I was also getting into the Korean movie scene, and the Asian DVD stores that are now a Tom N Tom's coffee shop on George Street, and Japanese hair salon on Sussex Street (I bought 'Il Mare' from this one!), are where I purchased a lot of my initial batch of Korean movies (in a DVD collection of them which now easily surpasses 100!).

    The Chinese guys who used to run the one that is now Tom N Tom's really knew their stuff, & I still have no idea where the nicely packaged 3-DVD version of 'OldBoy' that I bought from there is from. I've never been able to find it on the net.

    I left Australia in 2007, and pretty much have bought online since then, but I was looking forward to frequenting those stores again when I came back here last year, only to find they've both gone.

  2. There was a 3 disc oldboy set released in the US, but its now out of print.

  3. Yeah, I have that one (I shamefully own 3 versions of OldBoy...the other is the one which was included as part of the Tartan UK Vengeance Trilogy box-set, which came with a free hammer!). The one I bought from that store though remains a mystery.