Korean Films You Should Watch Before You Die #2

December 9, 2009

This is a guest post by Nick Mann.

My Sassy Girl

Every once in a while a movie comes along that works even though it shouldn’t.  I mean you could make this movie ten times and nine out of those ten times it would fail miserably, but somehow all the parts come together against the odds and you end up with a masterpiece.*

That’s My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo), in my opinion.  Perhaps “masterpiece” is a strong word, but it is hard to find a movie made outside of Hollywood that gains popularity all over the world and which fans can watch over and over again; yet such is the case with this movie.  My Sassy Girl was originally recommended to me by my Chinese co-worker and her husband in Korea. They said it was very popular in their homeland around the time of its release in 2001. Since then I have talked to Japanese people who believe most relationships between men and women in Korea unfold along the lines set out in this film. Most recently, I was visiting a friend in New York and his roommate from Romania said that he loved the movie and rarely had a girlfriend that he didn’t watch it with – the ultimate date movie. Talking about it as a “Korean movie you should see…” is therefore kind of a no-brainer.

The basic story is as follows (Don’t worry, no spoilers in this post): directionless, under-achieving university student meets extremely feisty girl on the subway and through a number of misunderstandings and coincidences the pair develop a strange relationship that inhabits a vague area between friendship and romance.

In order to write this entry I re-watched the movie and was dismayed, after sitting through the first thirty minutes, to discover it was much worse than I remembered. There is way too much narration, the soundtrack is grating, and portions of scenes play out in fast motion, which though intended to be humorous, give the film a sloppy, amateurish feel. I actually seriously re-considered writing a post about My Sassy Girl at that point.  However, in casting my memory back, I think I watched for about half an hour and turned off this movie the very first time I tried to watch it. Therefore, I implore first-time viewers: do not to give up on the film.  At least watch until the scene where they re-enact a scene from a ridiculous Terminator-style action movie for which the girl has written a treatment.  I’d say that is about the time the story really finds its rhythm.  It has some flaws, but there are at least three things the film has going for it:  a deceptively strong script (in spite of the weak first act and over-abundant narration), a romance story that nails important archetypes of the genre while rising above cliché, and finally a portrayal of what some might call the ‘quintessential’ Korean woman in Jeon Ji-Hyun.

The movie is called My Sassy Girl maybe for the sake of simplicity and brevity, but based on much of the behavior of the female lead a more apt name for the movie might be This Bitchy, Abusive, Possibly Frigid Girl I Kinda Know.  But who would watch a movie like that?  Somehow Jeon manages to balances all the aggressive energy of the character on one side with just the right measure of vulnerability and innocence. Through the movie you get the feeling that she might be a girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, it just so happens that she’s taken to wearing these massive gauntlets with nasty metal spikes and studs and such in order to protect the venerable organ (figuratively speaking, of course).

Not quite the finger-bang she was looking for

In terms of winning over audiences, it also doesn’t hurt that Jeon is physically everything a man could ask for in an ideal girlfriend (from a Korean perspective at any rate).  Tall and thin, with big eyes and long, straight, black hair – not my type, but that’s beside the point – she is one of the most popular movie stars in Korea.  You might think of her as a yellow Nicole Kidman or Angelina Jolie in terms of her status as a symbol of beauty and sensuality in her country .  But something sets Jeon apart from her Hollywood counterparts.  It seems even within the genre of comedy, female leads in comedic Hollywood productions aren’t required to do anything that is funny – that’s largely left to the men. Instead the women play the straight characters. I would go so far as to say sexiness and funniness rarely mix in Hollywood ideals of femininity. I guess the rule is occasionally broken – in American TV more often than in the movies (examples: Friends on occasion and the two Charlie’s Angels films) Also, there are cases where a funny actress might be considered by some men to be pretty – Tina Fey for example – but she is not considered by most to be a sex symbol.

On the other hand, in one of Jeon Ji-Hyun’s first scenes in My Sassy Girl she is embarrassingly drunk and proceeds to empty the contents of her stomach all over an elderly man on the subway.  It’s hard to imagine Angelina Jolie doing that – even if it were to put her in contention for another Oscar.

And Jeon Ji-Hyun is not alone among “sexy” female celebs in Korea undaunted by putting themselves in situations that might compromise their glamorous image in order to win a laugh.  Hyun Young, Ha Ji-Won, Kim Ah-Joong etc. the list goes on.  It’s something that I like about Korean films – Korean actresses seem to make exceptional comediennes. Check out Too Beautiful to Lie (Geunyeoreul Midji Maseyo) and 200 Pound Beauty (Minyeo-neun Koeroweo) just to name a couple.**

I started off by describing My Sassy Girl as a film that succeeds against the odds and Jeon Ji-Hyun’s performance is one of the main elements that contribute to its success.  It might not have worked with another actress or without the chemistry she has with the male lead, Cha Tae-hyun.  His performance in itself is quite endearing and the dynamic between these two characters leaves a lasting impression.  It is a uniquely Korean affair; they seem to take it incredibly slow from a western, twenty-first century point of view, but it works within the more conservative and sometimes naïve Korean cultural environment.

Beyond the innocence of the main characters, another thing that adds tension to the relationship is a sense that the man and woman are constantly engaged in a power struggle within the relationship. Though My Sassy Girl is perhaps the best example of this theme, it is certainly not the first or last produced in Korea, and the view of ‘love as battlefield’ seems to permeate Korean comedy.  Sure, the romantic device of introducing two characters who hate each other and in time discover each has fallen for the other is not one limited to Korean narratives.  But it is overwhelmingly prevalent in that country’s rendition of romantic comedy.  Rather than think of examples of films that use a similar plot arc, I find it almost impossible to name a Korean film that doesn’t use it.  A few films that articulate a philosophy of romance as conflict are The Rules of Seduction (Jak-eob-eui Jeong-seok) and Seducing Mr Perfect (Mr. Robin Ggoshigi).

Within Korea, hierarchy is one of the most important aspects of human interactions – it’s built into language, so it’s not surprising that it is a recurring element in the movies.  However, there is something about love that equates with surrender and so the aggressive girl, resisting against love clearly resonates among many viewers outside Korea, worldwide.  Other themes and scenes from the film leave a similarly strong impression in the way they seem to articulate complex feelings involved in love and romance in a universal way.  For me, the scene when the girl complains about her feet hurting in heels and her proposed solution is especially memorable and funny. Another classic scene depicts the pair going out on the town in their high school uniforms.  The result is a defining moment of the film: sexy, cool and playful on the surface and also an attempt by the emotionally scarred main character to recapture a time when everything was fresh and new.

Moments like this demonstrate that the script, despite its flaws, is quite thoughtful and stands up to repeat viewings. The movie is well over two hours long and there are very few speaking parts outside the lead male and female, yet in the entire film Jeon Ji-Hyun’s character is never addressed by name, and appears in the end credits as “girl” (geunyeo).  Another nuance is the discussion of why Koreans love melodrama (involving a re-imagined ending to a famous Korean novella) – the conversation is so entertaining that viewers might miss out on the self-awareness of that scene.  What is said here partially licenses the shift in mood towards the climax, a characteristic not unusual in Korean movies and discussed in my previous post (link).  It also draws attention to the importance of a kiss in a romantic story, a convention which this movie goes on to successfully defy.

One further note on the topic of melodrama and the tone of the film…  The makers of My Sassy Girl, believe it or not, saw fit to insert Pachelbel’s Canon into the soundtrack for numerous intensely emotional moments. Now this is something that should never have worked – it is just too sickly sweet and sappy… It’s an artistic choice I would expect from an aspiring film director in middle school; right up there with the remove-the-glasses, geeky-to-glamorous high school makeover and big “NOOO” shout. Yet Canon is undeniably, even quintessentially, romantic.  And again the dialog justifies its use: it is the male character’s favorite piano arrangement.  I have to admit, if you can suppress a cynical response, music like this does send the senses soaring.  So whether it was a balls-out stunt in spite of the cliché or a naïve decision by filmmakers that didn’t realize how sappy it really was and just got lucky, I think it works.  And that’s My Sassy Girl in a nutshell.

So if you feel like you want to check out some Korean cinema and have a soft spot for romance or feisty women, My Sassy Girl is a good place to start.

"It's from Hollywood....they want to do a shitty remake!"

* You know what I mean about a movie that has big problems, but still is somehow better than other more ‘perfect’ movies… I think of John Ford’s The Searchers as the defining example.  Others that I put in this category: Rushmore, Gangs of New York, though that may spark some debate.

** I feel I need to note here that I’m not saying Korean media representations of women are superior to Hollywood, just different.



  1. I have to agree with what you said about Korean actresses as comediennes.

    In particular, I was thinking about how goddamn funny and deliberately non-glamorous Lee Na-Young is in “Please Teach Me English”.

  2. […] 2 My Sassy Girl […]

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