THE SHORT VERDICT:
A heartwarming coming-of-age movie disguised – and therefore heavily misidentified – as a campy comedy.
If you were to approach this movie expecting a dose of pure funny all the way through, I’m guessing you would walk away rather disappointed. It’s true that the (often coarse) comedy reigns supreme for a good stretch of the movie, taking up maybe 50% of total screentime (this is not an exacting number, it’s just my feel-o-meter talking). Eventually, though, the funny gives way to deeper, bigger, meatier things. There’s a good bit of melodramatic angst involved, but it’s played well, and it all serves a larger, more thoughtful message than what one might expect, given the initial camp: What does it mean to grow up? And what does it mean to stand up for what you believe in?
Excellent performances from both the youth and adult actors make this an engaging, ultimately satisfying watch, with a bit of thought-provoking on the side.
THE LONG VERDICT [SPOILERS]:
You guys know that I don’t usually write movie reviews, preferring to focus my reviewing attention on dramas. While that hasn’t changed, I had more thoughts than usual after catching this movie on a flight, and decided that a quick review would do it more justice than my usual in-a-nutshell updates on the blog’s Facebook page.
Be warned that this review leans more towards a response post discussing the mapping of the story and its characters, and therefore is pretty spoilery.
Pacing and Handling of the Story
There’s something that I feel we need to deal with upfront and get out of the way. This movie has a lot of coarse humor.
In fact, the whole first half of the movie, particularly the earlier scenes, is full of jokes, many of the bawdy variety. If you don’t like this kind of humor, you’d probably find it uncomfortable to sit through.
I’m not big on bawdy humor myself, but I can understand the writing decision around this.
1. It’s quite typical of youth.
When you’re young and discovering the opposite sex, you tend to fixate on.. things, and also tend to be inordinately amused by those things.
By allowing the bawdy humor to have its day in the sun, the writers are giving us an idea of the teen psyche that is at work in almost all our main characters. This is how they think, this is how they tick, basically.
Honestly speaking, I actually preferred the later part of the movie to the earlier campy bits. It’s similar to how I felt about Fugitive: Plan B. With Plan B, I didn’t care so much for the camp that was rampant in its first half either, but once we got to the heart of things and people in its second half, I liked it a lot better.
Same thing here. The campy was amusing, but I just felt that there needed to be more to this movie than just camp. And happily, there was more.
2. It gives us time to appreciate the facade that forms the surface world these characters live in.
For almost all our characters, there’s a whole other inner world at work beneath the surface, and we don’t see it until the earlier campy layers peel back.
To be sure, the writers could have opted to show us this inner reality right off the bat, but I actually rather liked their decision to contrast the campy, surface reality with the hidden inner reality that we eventually get to see.
By investing time in showing us the surface reality, we get to understand the dynamics of the various relationship pieces and how they interact and collide with one another. We get to see Joong Gil (Lee Jong Suk) as a serial skirt-chaser, and over a few romantic pursuits, we also see how his heart is somehow not quite all there in it. We also get to see Young Sook (Park Bo Young) being tough – with girls and boys alike – and how she’s repeatedly shunned by Joong Gil, and how that hurts her. We also get to see the facade that So Hee (Lee Se Young) uses. We see her being all ladylike and dainty, and how the boys all fall over themselves for her, including Joong Gil.
Yes, it started to feel a little haphazard at times, and also a touch draggy, but on hindsight, I feel it was necessary. We needed to see that whole facade-world and how it spun on a daily basis, in order to appreciate what it was doing to our characters at deeper levels. And then, as the layers peel off, the impact of each layer hits us, one by one. That’s when we begin to really understand our characters and their inner workings.
I liked the carefully timed, selective use of flashbacks to fill in the gaps in our story; gaps which we and our characters had filled with misinformation prior. With the deliberate reveals, our important story and character pieces get re-set, one at a time, until we finally have all the important, correct information out in the open. It’s only then that our characters are able to move forward in meaningful ways.
In that sense, it’s like an intricate puzzle that has to unfold to reveal all its pieces, before being reconstructed into a new and more beautiful form.
Lee Jong Suk as Kang Joong Gil
To be honest, it had felt rather strange to me, to see Lee Jong Suk portraying a serial skirt-chaser.
For the first half of the movie, I kept having a niggling feeling that there was something that didn’t ring true in Lee Jong Suk’s portrayal of Joong Gil. Something just felt off.
At first, I thought, “Did I give him too much credit for his acting ability?” I started to wonder seriously if Lee Jong Suk’s acting chops weren’t as good as I’d originally thought.
But no, he didn’t disappoint after all. The whole reason that Joong Gil’s Casanova ways felt hollow was because it really was hollow.
As we eventually learn, Joong Gil had so much more going on underneath the surface. Him being a Casanova was more of a coping mechanism than a true expression of his character and personality.
What’s interesting is that Joong Gil as a character doesn’t even seem to realize this himself. As much as understanding his character is a journey of discovery for us, it’s a journey of discovery – and growth – for Joong Gil too.
Once he is confronted with the truth, his true heart bursts forth, and Joong Gil as a character – and Lee Jong Suk as that character – becomes a pleasure to watch. I particularly appreciated the moment he went crazy when he found out that Young Sook had taken the fall for him, and when he found out she’d left for Seoul. Joong Gil’s devastation and desperation was completely immersive, and I found him sympathetic and completely believable in that moment.
On a side note, I actually found Joong Gil’s facade a really strange one. I mean, Cowardly Casanova is just such a weird combination, right? Aren’t the girls at all disappointed by his wimpiness and cowardice in the face of bullies, male and female? I know I would be. To then have his character continually charming the girls, while at the same time getting beaten up by bullies, was just really weird for me.
Park Bo Young as Young Sook
This was my first time actually seeing Park Bo Young in something, and I felt that she was a revelation as Young Sook.
Despite Young Sook being the tough gangsta girl, I love, love, love that Park Bo Young imbues her with a layer of vulnerability that just shines through.
Her gaze betrays layers of hurt even though she never speaks of them. And even though Young Sook’s first instinct is always to protect her pride, she’s bold and gutsy and never shies away from tough situations or difficult decisions.
Even though it wasn’t always clear to us as an audience, I love that Young Sook cared for Joong Gil through it all.
Even when Joong Gil was chasing every other girl around, I believe that Young Sook knew – or at least, wanted to believe – that he was made of better stuff.
She was the only one who encouraged him to apply himself to his studies, even though he was getting zeroes in all his tests. She was the one who told him that he was smart. And, given that she tells him these things when she’s reached a pit in her own life, dropping out of school, says so much about her.
Tellingly, even though Young Sook is portrayed as a big gang leader and everything, we don’t actually see her stirring up trouble.
In fact, that whole fight that she had with So Hee was something that So Hee started. Young Sook had merely acted in self-defense.
One of the most memorable Young Sook scenes for me, is when she opts to get beaten to a pulp in order to secure Joong Gil’s safety. That she does it so matter-of-factly, and never breathes a word about it to anyone, just says so much about her.
Yes, she’s a tough gangsta girl of few words, but her actions speak so much louder than those few words. She’s made of steely, durable, loyal stuff, and I dig that.
The Happy Ever After
While some viewers might find it cliched that Joong Gil and Young Sook only get their happy ending after a time skip, I actually found it a more believable writing choice, than if Joong Gil had upped and gone to Seoul to find Young Sook right away.
Both Joong Gil and Young Sook needed to sort out their inner turmoil and figure out who they were as people, before they were ready to come together as a couple.
Before the time skip, Joong Gil is a big hot mess of a character, with a lot of baggage to sort through. After the time skip, when we come back to him, he’s clearly a more settled, mature version of himself. There’s groundedness and resolve in his eyes. He has set his heart on what he wants to do, and it’s gratifying to see him go for it.
I love the ending where Joong Gil strides in to Young Sook’s workplace to sweep her off her feet.
Yes, it’s cheesy, but doesn’t Young Sook deserve an epically cheesy love declaration after all that she’s been through?
Seeing all the little snippets of their future together, getting married and having kids and bickering, was just icing on the cake.
I really enjoyed all the supporting characters, and found them all very good. Here, I give quick shout-outs to just several of them.
Lee Se Young plays delicate city girl and gangster-y troublemaker very convincingly.
Kim Young Kwang (once again) is completely believable as a violent dumb jock. I found Gwang Sik so reminiscent of his character in White Christmas, really, except this time he’s rocking the slicked-back Elvis-esque hair.
As an aside, I almost couldn’t recognize Jun Soo Jin (Yes, that’s her next to Park Bo Young in the still up top). She looks so completely and utterly different from her Heirs and School 2013 personas that it was her voice rather than her face that clued me in to her presence in this show. I rather like badass gansta Jun Soo Jin, heh.
Among the adult cast, my favorites are the 2 teachers and their furtive romance.
I enjoyed how well-played their romance was, in echoing the themes that our youth are exploring, and I thought Ra Mi Ran was especially good. She made Lady Teach’s secret frustrations and little spurts of joy play out on her face even in the more subtle beats. Like how she let Lady Teach’s secret enjoyment of the moment show through, when the 2 teachers were asked to sing a duet together during the MT. Cute.
Kwon Hae Hyo is great as Joong Gil’s dad. I found him understated and believable, regardless of whichever side of the coin Joong Gil happened to see him as.
I really liked that his portrayal was able to withstand Joong Gil’s changes in perspective of him. Whether he was a womanizer or a grieving husband drunkenly acting out, his performance withstood both perspectives. Kudos.
Part of the credit definitely goes to the writing. There aren’t any manipulative decoys here that don’t make sense on hindsight. Instead, when the perspective is adjusted, the very same actions and behavior of the characters take on new meaning. And I really dig that.
A Movie with a Message
Walking away from this movie, there are 3 main themes that continued to resonate with me.
1. Things aren’t what they appear to be on the surface. There’s more beneath, almost always.
We see this play out in so many of our characters. Young Sook and why she loved Joong Gil. So Hee and her real past. Joong Gil and his hurts. Joong Gil’s dad and the truth about why his marriage broke down. The teachers and their secret relationship.
Eventually you find the truth, and the truth changes everything.
2. You need to find yourself and what you really want, instead of just reacting to what’s around you.
This is true of many of our characters, including minor ones like Joong Gil’s uncle. But we see it most in our lead couple. Young Sook needed to figure out what she really wanted in life, and Joong Gil needed to understand who and what he really cared about.
It’s only when you find out, that you can really begin to be true to yourself.
3. Be bold to stand for what you believe in.
It’s when you’ve figured out what you really want, that you can then boldly stand for what you believe in. We see our lead couple find their happy ending when Joong Gil finally seeks out Young Sook and sweeps her off her feet. And we see that mirrored in our teacher couple, who finally stop sneaking around and get married.
I love that there’s so much satisfaction painted around this. Hello, feel-good warm fuzzies.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A movie that explores growing up angst with a layer of camp on top. Sweet and uplifting at its heart.
FINAL GRADE: A-
Here’s the campy trailer, which I happen to think is a little too misleading, since this actually isn’t a campy movie at its heart.
This lovely song from the OST only played during the end credits, but I think it manages to capture the mood of the movie better. Beyond the comedic visuals in this MV, Park Bo Young’s sweet vocals and the wistful, longing lyrics hit closer to the movie’s heart.