A delicious performance by actress Kim Ha-neul and a script that naturally morphs into a very different movie in its second half make “My Tutor Friend” an unexpected pleasure among the current wave of attitude-heavy Korean youth pics. Cross-tracks romantic comedy about an impoverished part-time tutor and her spoiled, rich-kid charge is the first boffo hit of the year, heading toward 5 million admissions (around $25 million) since bowing in early February and holding the number one spot for its first five weeks. Asian-friendly events should warm to this smartly directed pic, and remake potential looks warm.
Kim, who played the cute femme lead in time-warp meller “Ditto” (2000), takes on a totally different persona here as klutzy Choi Su-weon, a 21-year-old English student who’s paying her way through the university by tutoring part-time. After quitting her latest job because she was harassed by horny pupils, she finds another assignment through her domineering mother to teach the eldest son of a rich friend in the evenings for three months.
Her student, Kim Ji-hun (Gweon Sang-woo, from “Volcano High”), is an arrogant piece of work who’s been brought back from the U.S. by his father after reducing teachers there to tears. Equally skilled at both fighting and partying, the slick Ji-hun is the same age as Su-weon, having spent the past three years as a high school senior due to lousy grades. From the get-go, Ji-hun is determined to psych Su-weon into giving up, and Su-weon is equally determined to persevere.
Opening reels, jazzed up with slick f/x that heighten the comedy, lead the audience to suppose that the film is going to be another anarchic student character piece, with Su-weon the put-upon tutor and Ji-hun the obstreperous bad boy. Though there’s a sense of deja vu here, with the two warring during their sessions together, it’s entertainingly enough played, with Kim Ha-neul likably insecure as the tutor who won’t give up, even when she’s beaten up at school by a girl (Kim Gi-woo) who’s hot for Ji-hun. Dressed down for the role, and contorting her face into ever-more feisty shows of determination, the young actress recalls Bae Du-na’s turn in the recent “After Hours”-like saga, “Saving My Hubby.”
All of this, however, is just an extended first act to the real movie — a light romantic comedy — which starts at the halfway point as Ji-hun returns wounded from a brawl. After Ji-hun’s exasperated dad (Park Hap-seob) threatens to send him back to the U.S., Ji-hun and Su-weon team up to improve his grades overnight, and find themselves slowly falling for each other. The only problem is that Su-weon’s so-called boyfriend suddenly flies back out of the blue.
There’s nothing very original here: The movie has shades of many others, from the John Hughes-scripted cross-tracks classic “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987) to recent Korean comedy-romancers “My Sassy Girl” and “A Perfect Match.” The character of Su-weon, especially, slightly recalls the female lead of “Match,” and there’s a similar occasional use of on-screen animation and graphics (including an untranslatable use of Chinese ideograms at one point) to perk the action.
Still, it’s the performances that make the picture, right down to the large supporting cast, plus direction by first-time helmer Kim Gyeong-hyeong, a former scriptwriter, that’s clean and visually precise.
Tech credits throughout are top-drawer in all departments. Like “My Sassy Girl,” script is based on a series of stories that first appeared on the Internet. Pic’s original title literally means “Same-Age Private Tutor,” which holds more social resonance for Korean viewers than Westerners.