By Nathanael Griffis
I, in stereotypical male fashion, avoid romantic comedies, but I’ll get to that in a moment. My Sassy Girl is not your typical romantic comedy. It follows several tropes of the genre, while eluding the pitfalls. In some ways it’s almost a satire of romantic comedies. I found myself surprised how much I liked this film. My expectations were to walk away from it with my suspicions confirmed that rom-coms can entertain and do little more. I do want to shed some light on the problems I have with rom-coms, but first let me say that My Sassy Girl is not one that should be avoided.
My Sassy Girl is an adapation of a novel that the author, Ho-sik Kim, pulled from his own life, no doubt taking liberties as writers do. (Side note: the actual title Yeopgijeogin geunyeo translates to The Bizarre Girl not My Sassy Girl, but My Sassy Girl is a more marketable title.) It’s about a boy named Kyun-woo, played by Tae-hyun Cha, who falls for “The Girl,” played Ji-hyun Jun. The Girl, who surpisingly is never named, has a low tolerence for alcohol, a penchant for ordering others around, and a sadness buried beneath an whitewashed exterior. The film follows the growing relationship between Kyun-woo and the Girl. At times it’s hilarious and poignant, and director Jae-young Kwak shows a deft ability to balance the two.
Thematically it reminded me a lot of the recent film (500) Days of Summer. Unlike that film, though, My Sassy Girl went on to become a massive hit; it is the highest grossing Korean comedy of all time. It deserves the accolades. The characters are distinctly unique but still relatable. Kyun-woo can show strength and confidence, but also a soft fragility and unwilliness to use his smarts and talent. The Girl’s bizarre behavior is rooted in some deep scar from her past, and beneath it all we see her grow and mature. The beauty of the film is in seeing these two flawed characters grow and fall in love and really examine what it means to be in a relationship.
Jae-young Kwak understood he was making a romantic comedy and allows his film to operate within the boundaries of the that genre. We get classic staples, such as the lead male as a struggling writer, a group of comic relief buddies around Kyun-woo, overbearing parents, chin-pinching aunts, meeting in the rain; all the classics are here, and they’re all used to a purpose. The director does unique things with our expectations though. On a few occasions the film flashes forward to when the relationship is at a point of possibly ending. The film will cut from an image of Kyun-woo to an older man with a resemblence to Kyun-woo. Within seconds, though, we see either The Girl or someone else un-aged and are reminded that only a short amount of time has passed. This flash-forward moment is not uncommon in romances (see The Notebook for example) and has been used for ages. Kwak recognizes this and uses it as a way to signal that while we are watching a romantic comedy, we should not expect it to bend to the rules of that genre.
The film is full of wonderful comedic moments. It satirizes samurai films and Hong Kong action movies. The editing style is fresh, and the music isn’t overbearing. It’s an example of how to make a romantic comedy right. Too often romantic-comedies objectify romance itself and in the grander scheme the concept of love becomes objectified as well. My Sassy Girl presents the real struggle and pain of a relationship while showing how our expectations and perceptions of romance can get in the way.
I’ve been bothered by romantic-comedies for the same reason I imagine people are bothered by action films: they take their subject matter too lightly. Now, who wants to sit down and watch a droll discussion of the nature of love? No one (except maybe Ingmar Bergman). Romances should be happy and funny. Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage. They’re happy, but they don’t assume that happiness is achieved through some magical whimsy. I’m bothered by the perception in romantic comedies that the words “I love you” or “I’m sorry” have some magically redeeming effect and signal the end to all unhappiness in life. It frequently seems that little needs to happen between two people except the exchange of a few words for all wrongs to be righted. Little attention is paid to the persons themselves and the way they relate to each other. In other words they miss the relationship and objectify love as something that can be earned or some mystical gift that can’t be explained.
Here’s an example: In Leap Year, Amy Adams plays what amounts to a self-absorbed New York socialite bigot. From the moment her character arrives in Ireland she sees their culture as stupid and openly mocks and abuses the people. This naturally causes the rustic Irish male lead played by Matthew Goode to fall in love with her. In the end neither character changes and Matthew Goode naturally accepts Amy Adams for who she is and all is well. Loving people despite their flaws is a good thing; it shows love is more powerful. What typically happens though is that people just tumble into love in some mysitical sense: at first they don’t relate, they fight all the time and then their eyes lock and, voila, love conquers all while rain mats hair to their face and hides the tears that have been buried in thier hearts.
On the opposite side there are other films like Adam starring Rose Byrne who is in a relationship with a man who has Asperger’s syndrome. The usual climax occurs where Rose Byrne’s character confronts the man and demands he tell her why she should be with him. He responds with “I need you,” which some of you might note is not “I love you,” so naturally their relationship will be a failure.
In Jerry Maguire when Renée Zellweger says “You had me it hello,” she’s not discounting Tom Cruise’s speech of love, but showing us that the speech isn’t the focus. It’s everything that’s come before it, and you don’t need some stirring, teary-eyed blubbering to confirm that. (It helps, but you don’t need it.) Knocked Up handles this concept nicely as well. Seth Rogan’s character, upon entering the delivery room, is screamed at and threatened by Katherine Heigel, but he doesn’t waste time on a stirring speech. He asserts that he’s here and that he thinks this relationship is going somewhere. At no time does the psuedo-Hollywood “I love you” moment happen. The proof is in his commitment to her. They may not even be in love (I contend they aren’t), but the relationship is given strength through their mutual struggling and enjoyment of life together.
Of course the greatest of them all, When Harry Met Sally, has all the cliches, a climactic speech of love, several dinner scenes gone wrong, and kissing. The difference is that it’s discussing and exploring the difference between friendship and relationship. To top it all off it also explores the effect of sex, and it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. If you go even farther back, in films like Roman Holiday or The Philadelphia Story romance is treated as a complex theme and what it means to be in love is examined, not merely presented.
Love is not some toggle switch hidden behind a person’s pupils that a phrase or the perfect environment will set off. My Sassy Girl understands this. In the film, the Girl tries to replicate all the right “romantic” moments that she’s had in a previous relationship. She forces Kyun-woo to become the dream boyfriend, which he is not. Kyun-woo, though, in a beautiful show of humility, goes along with it, and throughout learns who the Girl is, and falls in love with her. The Girl, upon realizing what she loves about Kyun-woo, is drawn to who he is in reality and not who she’s been shaping him into. They still have that magical destiny-drawing-them-together moment, but by that time we’ve seen their love materialize.
I don’t pretend to fully understand the nature of love, and I don’t begrudge people the enjoyment of a light-hearted romantic comedy, but I can’t help but be bothered everytime I see a concept so rich and exciting as love between two people encapsulated in a phrase, expressed in a bouquet, experienced in a single moment between bed sheets. Love is many brilliant things, and it’s refreshing to find films like My Sassy Girl that understand this. The film is a must-see for everyone: it’d make a great date movie, or group movie, or even a lonely-Tuesday-night-and-I-want-a-pick-me-up movie.
Next I’ll be watching Boon-ho Jong’s Memories of Murder (which may have a different tone.)