Don't judge "This Charming Girl" by its misleading English title. Far from being a fizzy romantic comedy, this impressive first feature by former a.d. Lee Yoon-ki is a slow-burning, almost minimalist portrait of a young woman's emotional emptiness.Small, hit of this year's Pusan fest looks set for Western fest exposure early next year.

Never judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge “This Charming Girl” by its misleading English title. Far from being a fizzy romantic comedy, this impressive first feature by former a.d. Lee Yoon-ki is a slow-burning, almost minimalist portrait of a young woman’s emotional emptiness. It sticks to the ribs thanks to a standout perf by lead actress Kim Ji-su and helming by Lee that slowly seduces the viewer without becoming unbearably arty. Small, undemonstrative hit of this year’s Pusan fest looks set for Western fest exposure early next year, with niche theatrical pickups possible in Europe.

On screen the entire time and with little dialogue, Kim, a TV thesp in her first bigscreen role, plays Jeong-hye, a clerk in a small suburban post office who lives on her own and goes through the same dreary routine every day. Attractive, neat but very detached, she seems to have no personal life and keeps a polite distance from her talkative female colleagues (Kim Mi-seong, Lee Mi-mi) and maverick manager (Kim Jung-gi).

Brief memory flashbacks fill in Jeong-hye’s character: She seems devoted to the memory of her artist mom (Kim Hye-ok), and for company adopts a leery little kitten whom she patiently tries to coax out from under the sofa. On a rare, and painful, lunch date at a fast-food joint, she meets a guy (Park Seong-ung) who informs her he’s getting married. He turns out to be her ex-husband, whose bed she fled on their wedding night.

The above takes up almost an hour of screentime but never becomes remotely boring. Shot largely handheld, in a fluid, easy way, and trimly edited, the film delivers its magic in its detail — everyday nuances, looks and gestures that ring true — and is held together by Kim’s graceful performance as the lead character, who’s comfortable in her own skin.

Or so it seems. In a development that initially seems abrupt, Jeong-hye suddenly invites a writer (Hwang Jeong-min), who’s been regularly mailing portions of his book from her post office, to dinner. Their awkward encounter triggers another attempt by Jeong-hye to reach out emotionally, this time to a drunk (Seo Dong-weon). Pic’s final revelation of the cause of Jeong-hye’s emotional/sexual blockage seems cliched, though the final reel is both gripping and moving in a restrained way.

Korean title literally means “A Woman, Jeong-hye,” which more accurately reflects the movie’s simplicity and understatement. Though it’s hardly earth-shaking, modest pic accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and no more — rare for a first feature, and even rarer in auteur cinema. Film unanimously won top prize in Pusan’s competitive New Currents section.

This Charming Girl

South Korea

Production

A Showbox release of an LJ Film production, in association with Bookfilms. (International sales: Showbox, Seoul.) Produced by Yun Il-jung. Executive producer, Lee Seung-jae. Directed, written by Lee Yoon-ki, from an original work by Wu Ae-ryong.

Crew

Camera (color), Choi Jin-ung; editors, Ham Seong-weon, Kim Hyeong-ju; music, Lee Yeong-ho, Lee So-yun; art director, Seo Myeong-hye; costumes, Chae Gyeong-hwa; sound (Dolby Digital), Jo Seong-tae. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (New Currents), Oct. 8, 2004. Running time: 99 MIN.

Cast

With: Kim Ji-su, Hwang Jeong-min, Kim Hye-ok, Lee Dae-yeon, Lee Geum-ju, Kim Mi-seong, Lee Mi-mi, Kim Jung-gi, Seo Dong-weon, Park Seong-ung, Jeong Seon-yong, Kim Ggoch-bi .
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more