The Film That Changed Everything: My Sassy Girl


   I often find myself ranting at people, in person and in print, on the virtues of South Korean movies.

   How the country has been the most consistently inventive in all of world cinema for at least the last twenty years. How the nation's youth-focused, kinetic cultural industries are as exciting as the Golden Age of Hollywood or Motown. If there is a limit of hyperbole my mind can stretch to whilst talking about South Korean films, my mouth will easily surpass it.

   When asked where this obsession stems from (including, on one occasion, by film hero Mark Cousins who kindly indulged my ranting on the subject following a screening of A Story of Children and Film), my answer is always the same and forever unchanged - My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin Geunyo).

   I have no idea how I came to possess this film (fate?) but one thing I can state for certain is that my life can be neatly divided into two - the time spent before seeing Kwak Jae-yong's soaring comedy romance, and the period after.

   For once it would not be an exaggeration for me state this movie changed everything for me. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what story-telling could be, how expansive (and equally intimate) cinema can be; the passionate, tender, heart-warming (and hilarious) tale introduced me to its visionary director and reminded me how kind and gentle cinema can be at its very best; how empathy can triumph over cynicism and how something as simple as watching movies can inspire us to reach the heights of the best version of us we can possibly be.

   Looking at the Asian film industry in the years which followed its 2001 release, its quite clear that the movies' influence spread much further and wider than is often appreciated - one of the most popular films of all time in China, a key early wave in the Hallyu movement which swept Japan, and a tale which casts a clear shadow over Korean cinema to this day.

   It would also be remiss to note how Hollywood (in a bid to stay relevant) has often cribbed elements from Asian movies wholesale. Indeed, whilst the American film industry created an entirely bungled remake of My Sassy Girl itself, the fingerprints of Kwak's masterpieces can also be found all over Hollywood features such as (500) Days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and a whole host of acerbic young teen romances.

   But what exactly is it that makes My Sassy Girl film so special? So timeless?


   The success of Kwak Jae-yong's films (which include The Classic and Cyborg She) stem from the director's infinite fascination with the human heart - the heights to which it can gracelessly float and the profound depths sorrow can drag it to equally. Grief is the price we pay for love.

   With My Sassy Girl, Kwak's return to the movie industry after an elongated sabbatical, the filmmaker established himself as one of the most visionary souls on the planet and unparalleled in sketching young love in all its guises across a number of genres. Here he mixes Chaplin-esque slapstick and traditionally Korean melodramatics with a post-internet kinetic energy - a unique mixture which has grown in influence as the years pass.

   The quirky and outrageous movie tells the tale of a young couple who find themselves falling in love. As standard as that premise may be, the "meet-cute"  sequence really stretches the semantics of such a term. The titular girl (Jun Ji-hyun), whom is never named in the movie, is rescued by our hero Gyun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) as she teeters on the edge of a train platform - her eyes roll to face the top of her skull, her hair is shambolic; she is utterly and dramatically drunk.

   The girl's brush with death does little to sober her up and, in the proceeding train journey, causes further public chaos - threatening violence to passengers and emptying the linings of her stomach onto elders horrify all. Her final act before alcohol takes her consciousness is to reach towards Gyeun-woo, grasping for him as she calls out "Honey!", before collapsing in an inebriated mess.

   Somehow our put-upon protagonist finds himself the guardian of a very drunken, very beautiful and clearly very troubled young woman. Their adventures in life start here - and at no point does our titular heroine remember to behave herself; Gyeun-woo accepts his fate with begrudging resignation which, naturally, flourishes into something much more profound.

    My Sassy Girl is a rather unorthodox romance.... but aren't all the best love stories?


   Some may find cliches here (running for trains, public proclamations of love) but each action in this wildly romantic melodrama is done with such sincerity and earnest zeal... it'd be much kinder, and more appropriate, to call them "classics".

   And, in Kim Hi-sok and Kwak's co-written screenplay, the director demolishes a fair few stereotypes too. Who needs to travel to a time of destructive machines when all the wonder in the universe can be found in a tale of young romance? Perhaps Hollywood took away the wrong message when they stole liberally from this film.

   Kwak also confronts gender attitudes - Jun's role subverts the patriarchal norms of Confucianism to a wild degree, as Cha takes on a more submissive role than is often associated with masculine Korean cinema. Rather than continue peddling gender representations prevalent throughout cinema, Kwak instead focuses on how love, regardless of its shape or form, conquers all: a rather radical message in its own way.

   Equally, the film is something of a technical marvel. My Sassy Girl is a rare example of modern cinema which explores the medium with the wide-eyed enthusiasm and wonder of its early pioneers. Its a feeling which permeates those who watch it too - we're reminded what its like to discover movies and, ultimately, to discover love.

   The scenery of Korea, presented in natural splendor, is matched only in the manner in which Kwak captures his character's faces. And few faces are as expressive and enchanting as Jun Ji-Hyun who delivers one of the great performances the medium has ever witnessed; her features radiate empathy in spades as she scowls, smiles, cowers and swoons. Her performance as the titular character is one of wonder and hope - we root for the film's couple to come together like few others as we watch their relationship organically grow. She torments him but Gyeun-woo knows who really is the more tormented of the two - if only he can figure out how to ease her pain perhaps so they can save one another.

   Perhaps the pinnacle of the romantic comedy, Kwak's film is one of the landmark's of movie-making and should rightfully be remembered as one of the most influential films of modern cinema.
 
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