Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun have excellent chemistry together in Kwak Jae-yong’s utterly charming and very funny rom-com.
“First, don’t ask her to be feminine. Don’t let her drink over three glasses, she’ll beat someone. At a cafe, drink coffee instead of Coke or juice. If she hits you, act like it hurts. If it hurts, act like it doesn’t. On your 100th day together, give her a rose during her class. She’ll like it a lot. Make sure you learn fencing and squash. Also, be prepared to go to prison sometimes. If she says she’ll kill you, don’t take it lightly. If her feet hurt, exchange shoes with her. Finally, she likes to write. Encourage her.”
Cha Tae-hyun plays Gyeon-woo, an engineer student whose luck with the ladies is not particularly great. On his way to see his aunt one evening, he spots a drunk girl (Jun Ji-hyun) teetering on the edge of the platform, and pulls her back just in time. He eventually manages to carry her to a motel so she can sleep it off. However, a friend of hers calls her up, he answers, and in the misunderstanding the cops get called out. He’s released the following morning, and immediately gets a call from the Girl, asking him what happened.
So marks the beginning of their relationship. She’s controlling and standoffish, and he’s too soft to say anything back to her. As they meet more frequently, their relationship starts to grow, and they begin to feel affectionate towards one another. Misadventures ensue as the Girl (who remains nameless throughout) turns Gyeon-woo’s life upside down.
My Sassy Girl is based off a novel that was, in turn, based off a series of blog posts by Kim Ho-Sik, which was based off his real relationship with a girl (in fact, there’s a weird meta moment near the end where Gyeon-woo writes the blog and manages to option the novel to a film studio. How much of the film is based off real life I cannot say, but there’s definitely the feeling that these characters, and the things they get up to, come from a real place. On top of its unabashed sincerity, what My Sassy Girl offers, more than anything else, is personality. It does so much with its two characters in its two hour running time. Watching the first half you’d be forgiven for thinking that the characters are two-dimensional and one-note. The Girl’s constant strive for control and Gyeon-woo’s inability to stand up for himself means Part One drags on more than it should.
However, it never reaches such points where it becomes a chore to watch. Both Cha and Jun give their characters enough life and personality that even at points when the story doesn’t address any of the issues they’re going through, you get the sense that these are real people. More than that: that they’re interesting and fun people you want to spend time with.
The actors are really the driving force of the entire film. The two transcend their character archetypes. Jun imbues enough pain in her portrayal of the Sassy Girl to make her character not unbearable. She’s a nuisance at times and there are scenes where I thought “I would just walk out if I was Gyeon-woo”, especially at the beginning before she begins to soften, but the movie is kept together by their excellent chemistry. Both Gyeon-woo and the girl have clearly been, in the past, hurt in their own ways, but while this translates to meekness in Gyeon-woo, the girl manifests it in brashness and a desire to take control of every situation. Before we learn really who she is, we get the impression that the Girl is trying to prevent a situation from repeating itself by taking command of every scenario. The scenes where she breaks down and cries and bears her soul to Gyeon-woo feel earned. Gyeon-woo is a bit less fleshed out a character at least in terms of backstory, despite being the point-of-view for the whole film, but Cha Tae-hyun definitely knows who he’s playing, and does so with all the goofy clumsiness and slapstick you’d expect.
Humour in My Sassy Girl is ever-present. It has a strong, sincere message and everything is played perfectly straight, but director Kwak Jae-yong knows not to take it so seriously. There are plenty of wonderfully funny moments and sight gags, a lot of which come in small, weird doses that give us a better sense of the strange world these character inhabit. On a date with another woman, Gyeon-woo says he’ll only stay for a drink, only to have a tray with two dozen bottles of beer arrive at the table. A game he and the girl plays, which involves getting slapped if someone walks over a lipstick line with their left or right foot, results in an army of soldiers all walking over the line in unison, all with the same foot. There are moments of weirdness that work because they’re there to show us how Gyeon-woo reacts to the world, and to show us that the movie isn’t trying to be anything other than fun.
The film’s runtime is a bit over two hours ten, and it would be a lie to say that it goes unnoticed. While the second half of the film picks up a lot of momentum, the end of the first half begins to drag a bit, especially during a scene where Gyeon-woo wishes to surprise the girl by bringing her to an amusement park he used to work at one night, only to be taken hostage by an AWOL soldier who’s recently split with his girlfriend. The scene kind of goes nowhere and while there’s a nice conclusion which further emphasises how strong a tool love can be, it’s not nearly as strong a scene as one right at the end, which tells a similar message, but with much more pathos and power. 137 minutes is a long time for a romantic comedy, and you’re left wondering if something closer to the 90-minute mark wouldn’t have made things a bit snappier and less slow.
But that’s a tiny gripe. Like I said earlier, the second half of the film is when things really kick into gear and by the time the Overtime runs (the film is bafflingly divided into Part One, Part Two, and “Overtime”), you’ve completely forgotten how much time has passed.
The ending might seem a little bit convenient to a lot of viewers, maybe, but to me it felt more like a puzzle piece that had been absent the whole time finally coming into play; the ending feels deserved, which is exactly what this sort of film, and its characters, need.
Verdict: It might be slow to start in places but when it gets going, My Sassy Girl is an honest and funny romantic comedy, with two incredibly likeable leads who elevate the film from run-of-the-mill to excellent.