The slowly developing emotional fabric writer-helmer Ryu Jang-ha spun in his impressive first pic, “Springtime,” is evident again in his sophomore feature, “Hello Schoolgirl,” though wrapped around very different material. Centered on the close friendship (and maybe more) between a 30-year-old civil servant and an 18-year-old high schooler, this delicate movie harks back to South Korean cinema of a decade ago with its pristine, uncluttered screenplay and sense of an alternate emotional universe at work. Local B.O. late last year was a respectable 800,000 admissions (some $5 million).
Pic’s dumb English title — the Korean literally means “A Pure(-minded) Manga” — ought not to be an impediment to fest sidebars and tube slots.
The story of an emotional attachment, sans sex, between an older guy and a teen girl is almost impossible to bring off nowadays in a Western setting, though in Asia, it’s fairly commonplace. Script, by no fewer than eight writers, is based on a 2003 Web comic by popular South Korean artist Kang Full (pseudonym of Kang Do-yeong), known under the English title “Love Story.”
Popular hunk Yu Ji-tae (“One Fine Spring Day,” “Oldboy”) dials down his normal charisma as Kim Yun-woo, a low-level salaryman who lives in a high-rise. His neighbor, young Han Su-yeong (Lee Yeon-heui), is a tad rebellious, and they first meet when she borrows his tie to go to school one day.
Their developing friendship is handled with charm and humor in a series of scenes almost totally devoid of regular plotting. Running parallel to their story is another relationship: Yun-woo’s new co-worker, 25-year-old Suk (Gang In), falls for a morose, 29-year-old photog, Ha-gyeong (Chae Jeong-an), whom he meets at a metro station. She keeps warning him he’ll be disappointed if he perseveres with his wooing.
Though the two strands only seem tangentially related, it’s later revealed there are more connections between the four protags than at first appeared. Wrap-up is typically low-key but emotionally satisfying.
Playing a character only a couple of years younger than she actually is, Lee (the dream girl in Lee Myung-se’s “M”) is excellent as the schoolgirl, whether studiously addressing Yun-woo by the honorific “ajeossi” (literally, “mister,” used for someone a generation older), or determinedly standing up to her conservative mom when she’s caught holding hands with Yun-woo one evening. Suk and Ha-gyeong’s story is less interesting but is solidly played by Gang and Chae.
Lensing captures the atmosphere of a long, hot urban summer, and the simple piano score conveys the central relationship’s tenderness. Author Kang cameos as an umbrella salesman.