Campier than a tent-makers’ convention, but done with an Asian faux-naivete and light social message, “Dasepo Naughty Girls” is a sustained visual treat that’s almost too intelligently directed. Based on a wildly popular Internet comic centered on the sexual shenanigans of students at Useless High, pic demands considerable knowledge of South Korean movie conventions and teen pop culture to really work, especially as director E J-yong has not gone for laugh-a-minute pacing. Much-awaited movie managed only a lame 450,000 admissions ($2.6 million) on release in August, but could work as a latenight specialist entry at Western fests.
E is best known in the West for his classy costumer “Untold Scandal,” a Korean version of “Dangerous Liaisons,” but all of his previous movies have the common element of taboo-breaking material combined with sumptuous production values. “Dasepo,” his fourth feature, is no exception, though here the subject matter really demanded a leaner, spikier approach to work as an anarchic crowdpleaser.
Side by side with the feature, production company Ahn’s World also released this summer (on TV and cell phones) a series of DV shorts by no-name directors based on the same source material. A three-hour selection of these, packaged as “Series Dasepo Naughty Girls 1 & 2,” preemed at South Korea’s PiFan fest in July, and generally worked well for what’s essentially highly episodic material. Some of the same episodes also crop up in E’s feature, where they’re much more lavish but less barbed.
Pic begins with a delish introduction to the featured pupils of Useless High. All the teens, apart from Poor Girl (Kim Ok-bin), the class virgin, and one-eyed Cyclops (Lee Kyeon), whom nobody wants to lay, suddenly realize they’ve caught syphilis from the same source. Cue mass exit before an aghast teacher (Lee Jae-yong).
Pic’s moral center — if it actually has one — is Poor Girl, who lives in a hillside shanty and literally carries Poverty on her back, in the form of a four-legged toy creature. Her crazed mother (Im Hye-jin) hopes to get rich by selling toy pyramids. Poor Girl tries to make ends meet by selling herself (“virginity doesn’t pay the bills”) but ends up with weirdo clients who aren’t interested in sex, including Big Razor Sis (Lee Weon-jong, usually seen in macho roles), a butch transvestite in a schoolgirl uniform.
Meanwhile, Poor Girl has fallen head-over-heels for rich kid Anthony (Park Jin-woo), a transfer student from Switzerland. But he’s going through a sexual identity crisis of own, after falling for Cyclops’ unaccountably beautiful sister, Two Eyes (Lee Eun-seong): he finds she’s actually a man saving up for a sex-change operation.
And so it goes. E paces the succession of self-contained setpieces fairly leisurely during the first hour, interspersed with musical numbers complete with karaoke-style onscreen lyrics. But a smidgeon of a through-plot starts to emerge when Poor Girl tastes overnight celebrity and she and Anthony make a surprise discovery about their relationship.
Film’s underlying message is tolerance towards those who are different, and overall the movie sends up Koreans’ obsession with social conformity. Humor throughout is hit-and-miss, but there’s a kind of sweet charm to the pic that’s catching if viewers don’t go expecting a rollercoaster ride of bad taste.
Performances are all fine within the limitations of the cartoony characters, and Kim makes Poor Girl a genuinely funny-pathetic figure. In addition to above-mentioned characters, Kim Byeol is funny as class sweetie Bellflower, and Park Hye-weon is notable as the sexy class monitor.
Production design by Lee Hyeong-ju is all gaudy, ’60s pop colors, succulently shot in widescreen by Jeong Jeong-hun. Songs aren’t especially memorable, though the staging of the final graduation day number is a capper.