As perfect as a whole day of sunshine, Korean femme-centric ensembler “Sunny” is a warm ray of cinematic light that elicits joy and tears in equal measure. Ably combining the coming-of-age and midlife crisis genres, Kang Hyoung-chul’s sophomore effort plays something like a richer, tastier Korean version of Hollywood weepie “Now and Then” (1995). Its socko local haul of $47 million won’t be eclipsed offshore, but the film could glow internationally, since it explores issues familiar to auds everywhere, albeit with a distinct kimchi flavor.
Pic’s pivotal character is Im Na-mi (Yu Ho-jeong), first met as a well-to-do, taken-for-granted housewife who accidentally learns that her high-school friend Chun-hwa (Jin Hui-gyeong) has been hospitalized with terminal cancer. Thrilled to see her old buddy again, Chun-hwa requests that Na-mi get their former teen gang — known collectively as Sunny — back together for a reunion before Chun-hwa dies; they’ll have to act fairly quickly, since Chun-hwa isn’t expected to live more than two months longer..
Na-mi sets out to fulfill Chun-hwa’s wish by checking in first with a former teacher. As Na-mi walks up the path to her old school, Kang uses a 360-degree pan to jump back 25 years to the 1980s, when teenage country bumpkin Na-mi (now played by Shim Eun-gyeong) was the new kid at her Seoul high school.
The flashback allows the script to introduce the whole Sunny crew: feisty young Chun-hwa (Gang So-ra), who always had more faith in Na-mi’s talents than she ever did; foul-mouthed Jin-hui (Park Jin-ju); pretty airhead Bok-hui (Kim Bo-mi); overweight, plastic surgery-obsessed Jang-mi (Kim Min-yeong); violent bookworm Geom-ok (Nam Bo-ra); and too-cool-for-school aspiring fashion model Su-ji (Min Hyo-rin). All are charmed to varying degrees by Na-mi’s honest if awkward style.
The film cycles back and forth between past and present with ease, handling the seven protags (multiplied by two) and a flood of subsidiary characters without ever losing its balance or momentum. While tissues should be issued at cinema exit doors, it’s the pic’s robust humor that puts the hook in. Kang’s script manages to offer up a deft depiction of teen life while perfectly capturing the swift changes that have transformed South Korea in the past 30 years.
Pic’s fabulous and funny centerpiece is a downtown standoff between Sunny and a rival distaff gang, their battle coinciding with an attack on a left-wing demonstration by Korea’s Fifth Republic militia. Set to “Touch by Touch” (a track by Austrian group Joy, a 1980s Korean pop sensation), and taking place underneath a theater placard for the anti-communist-themed “Rocky 4,” this hilarious but breathtaking sequence reps a showpiece for the technical expertise Kang demonstrates throughout.
Pic’s teen thesps are uniformly terrific. Likewise, the thesps who play their grown-up counterparts heartwarmingly embody the foibles of adults whose dreams were unfulfilled. Supporting cast is also flawless.
Slick lensing by Lee Hyung-deok capitalizes on the superb production design of Lee Yo-han, which contrasts the monochromatic sophistication of contempo corporate Seoul with the bubble-gum pop colors of the 1980s.
Version caught at the Busan fest was a director’s cut that clocked in at 11 minutes longer than the version first released commercially in South Korea in August. Differences include more vivid teacher-inflicted violence and more profanity from Jin-hui than was first thought commercially viable. At press time, some music used on the director’s cut soundtrack, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” had yet to be cleared for international play.