Snapped up for remake (and North American rights) by Miramax’s Dimension Films arm prior to release in South Korea, and since racking up a robust 2.5 million admissions since its late March opening, “My Teacher, Mr. Kim” is a slow-burning charmer with an emotional kick in the final act. About an unscrupulous teacher who finds personal redemption in a tiny rural school, light character comedy starts — like several recent Korean pics — as one movie and morphs into another, held together by mobile playing from Cha Seung-weon in the title role. Asia-friendly and less arty fests should check this one out.
Sophomore outing by director Jang Gyu-seong, inspired by his own rural childhood, reps a complete about-face from his first feature, “Funny Movie,” South Korea’s first film-spoof picture. Lead thesp Cha also shows a range unseen in previous movies like “Kick the Moon,” “Break Out” and “Jail Breakers.”
Beginning like some goofy high school comedy (which South Korea has produced plenty of lately ), script quickly sketches Kim Bong-du (Cha), a Seoul teacher who unashamedly takes bribes from parents to favor their kids, and gives the kids hell if mom and pop don’t pay up. Following a scandal involving one pupil, Kim is put out to grass in a remote township in Kangweon Province, several hours east of the big city.
After getting blotto at the villagers’ welcome party, Kim finds out the next morning that his class comprises just five tykes — three girls and two boys. With no local shops, no fresh kimchi and none of his Seoul buddies willing to make the journey to visit him, Kim’s soon terminally bored.
He tries running the same bribes scam he did in the city but ends up with vegetables instead of cash. And his g.f., Seon-yeong (Kim Mi-ran), a former high school dropout, only turns up one time, to retrieve money he owes her.
The elementary school is scheduled to be shuttered by the authorities and, to hasten the process, Kim ludicrously tries to encourage the parents to send their tots to Seoul to pursue studies in things like painting or baseball. Despite everything, however, he’s slowly becoming attached to the place and the people.
Plot sounds on paper like a formula weepie, but there’s an acerbic tone to the sly, natural comedy that undercuts the seeming predictability of the story. And as more info is provided late on about Kim’s own background, his apparently irredeemable character is at least explained, if never excused. Other supporting characters also find their place in the emotional fabric, from local handyman Chun-shik (Sung Ji-ru) to irascible loner Choi (Byun Heui-bong), who Kim teaches to read.
In almost every scene , Cha cleverly slides back and forth from scoundrel to professional , with a sense of the character’s personal loneliness emerging in the second half prior to the memories-of-childhood ending (another favorite theme of modern Korean cinema). Other roles are acutely cast, with special kudos to the five tykes, especially Choi Min-ju as the class monitor and Lee Ji-eun as her bright assistant.
Running time could take a few trims in the middle stages as Kim adjusts to rural life, and pic as a whole demands some patience before its final rewards. Tech credits are all solid, with Kim Yun-su’s widescreen photography not over-prettifying the boondocks setting.