Kim Seong-su, helmer of big-budget historical action-drama “Musa” and comedy-thriller “Run Away” (both in 2001), takes a left turn with his fifth feature, “Please Teach Me English,” a perky satire on Koreans’No. 1 career obsession that broadens out into a charming tale of two young lonesters. Well-scripted, smoothly made item will appeal to devotees of Korean cinema — and anyone who’s struggled with a seemingly impossible lingo — though outside Anglophone markets it represents an insuperable subtitling problem. November release scored a healthy, but not runaway, 1 million admissions.
In a country where some ambitious parents have had their kids’ tongues surgically loosened so they can better master English pronunciation, pic’s subject has been ripe for comic treatment. (Director Park Jin-pyo briefly addressed the matter in his seg, “Tongue Tie,” in last year’s fine portmanteau feature, “If You Were Me.”) The surprise here is that it’s only the starting point, not an end in itself, for Kim’s film.
Just as “Musa” was more than just an action movie by dint of its characterization, “English” walks a steady line between pratfall comedy and soppy romance, with a raft of likable personalities in the well-structured screenplay. Kim was one of the pioneers of the modern Korean buddy movie, and it shows in his first outing into romantic comedy.
Ditzy Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong) is a low-level government clerk who’s so embarrassed by her lack of the Anglo lingo that she enrolls in a night class. There, she meets fellow student Park Mun-su (young idol Jang Hyeok, from “Volcano High”), a skirt-chaser who’s more interested in chatting up their sexy Australian teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly).
Despite his cocky attitude, Mun-su is actually a shoe salesman in a department store who’s regularly slapped around by his divorced mom (Na Mun-heui). He has a younger sister he’s never seen since she was given for adoption to an American couple 23 years ago.
Early reels sketch the various members of the class, and have good-natured fun with linguistic tropes (well captured by the English subtitles), as Yeong-ju falls hopelessly into a one-sided romantic fixation for Mun-su. When Mun-su finally makes nice with her, she thinks she’s on the home stretch — until a misunderstanding over his long-lost sister throws a wrench in the works.
Script’s concentration on well-rounded characters pays off when the picture broadens into genuine romance around the 80-minute mark, though things are never allowed to get too serious. Typical of the film’s occasional left-field ideas is a cameo near the end by well-known comic Lee Beom-su who, while explaining the plot to a friend in a subway car, actually helps the movie’s resolution.
Frequent use of dialogue bubbles and animation (from paper cut-outs to full-scale CGI) is now commonplace in Korean comedies; here, at least, it fits the subject (translating students’ gobbledygook) and is humorously handled. Performances are fine down the line, with both Lee and Jang visibly having a ball. Aussie thesp Kelly, making her bigscreen debut as the bilingual teacher, acquits herself well in a surprisingly substantial role.