The shafts of Eros just keep on missing their mark in “My Sassy Girl,” an offbeat romantic comedy of manners between a mother-dominated twentysomething and a weird, self-centered girl he falls for in the subway. The big summer hit in South Korea this year, grossing $26 million (more than “Shrek” and “Pearl Harbor” combined), pic looks unlikely to make much impression beyond East Asia but will be appreciated by anyone with a broad interest in current Korean cinema. Specialized ethnic Webs look like its most profitable offshore avenues.
In Web-obsessed South Korea, film came almost pre-sold, being based on a story that began as an Internet column in August ’99 charting the up-and-down dating saga of two college students. The girl’s eccentric behavior led to the so-called yeobgi craze, literally meaning “novelty-seeking” that’s hardly mirrored by the word “sassy” in the pic’s English title.
None of this is necessary to know in order to enjoy the movie’s gentle comedy, though it does partly explain the sudden leaps into genre parodies (a female action movie and a martial arts set-to) that are slipped into the narrative under the guise of the girl trying her hand at writing film treatments. Beyond that, it’s a slow-burning study of two mismatched people trying to form a relationship; and like this year’s superior and highly underrated “I Wish I Had a Wife,” by Park Heung-shik, it centers almost entirely on the two protags spinning a very fragile web.
Jeon Ji-hyeon, from time-warp meller “Il Mare,” plays an unnamed 24-year-old whom the likable but hopeless Gyun-wu (Cha Tae-hyeon) carries off to a hotel to sober up after she exhibits anti-social behavior on the subway. Despite her sudden disappearances and mood changes — spinning on a dime from cute to bullying — Gyun-wu becomes hooked romantically, even when the relationship develops into a series of comic tests and humiliations she devises, with nary a kiss between the two.
It turns out she’s still smarting from being burned during a previous failed relationship and, just when the viewer wonders whether the two were ever meant for each other, the story pulls a marvelous twist of destiny — typical of so many love stories in recent Korean cinema — that settles the question once and for all, ending on a final, show-stopping freeze-frame.
Pic could do with considerable tightening by 15-20 minutes, but none of it would even half work without the unlikely pairing of Jeon, who makes her potentially exasperating character likable, and the baby-faced Cha, who implants just enough weirdness in Gyun-wu’s personality to make the attraction between the two believable. Writer-director Kwak Jae-yong, returning after an eight-year absence, gives his thesps plenty of room, and an attractive music track — from songs like “My Girl” to rags by Scott Joplin — keeps things moving.