Kim Sung-Wook’s comedy never really commits and as a result achieves nothing.
“Must’ve been some nightmare for you to call me ‘mom’.”
Sasaeng fandom is a term in Korean culture that refers to obsessive fans who have a tendency to connect a bit … too much with their idols. In Japan, films like Perfect Blue and the ill-advised Helter Skelter have covered the topic of idolism in the light of psychological thrillers as there’s plenty of meat to be picked at here. The same can be made of Korean fandoms, whose high levels of toxicity can leads to problematic lives for k-pop singers, actors and other stars; where the slightest slip-ups in behaviour can lead to breaches of contracts or immense fan backlash. Star Nextdoor takes this as its premise, and in an inventive twist, chooses to make itself a comedy.
Han Hye-Mi (Han Chae-Young) is a superstar known for scandals and attracting loads of media attention. She lives next door to 15-year-old So-Eun (Jin Ji-Hee) who – with her friends at school – is somewhat obsessed with idol and all-round hottie God Ji-Hoon (Im Suel-Ong). After Hye-Mi is revealed to be dating Ji-Hoon, the girls go on the offensive against Hye-Mi … and that’s when we learn So-Eun is actually her daughter. In order to avoid more scandal, we learn, Hye-Mi has never acknowledged her daughter, and the two instead live lives pretending they only know each other in passing. So-Eun lives with her grandmother, but yearns to have a proper relationship with her mother.
The movie’s basic premise – that a woman is so frightened of public repercussion – that she choses to hide her child for 15 years – is inventive and silly enough. It’s the sort of movie that could really play on its tongue-in-cheek nature, but it requires a deft hand and some very well-written leads. Although the movie acknowledges this on a few occasions, it’s strange to see Hye-Mi truly have zero motherly connection to her daughter. While it’s established that she has no real idea how to behave like a real mother, the dynamics between she and So-Eun is closer to that of sisters. They bicker and squabble like siblings and there simply is very little indication of this relationship until it’s explicitly stated after a good chunk of the movie has passed.
This makes Hye-Mi look less like a mother who’s had to purposefully ignore her child out of fear of scandal, and more like a dismissive, frankly terrible human being who actively puts her own child down in public in order to save face at any given moment. There’s a touching moment when, in an attempt to understand the girl she hasn’t raised, she discovers a bunch of Yahoo Answers-style questions asked by So-Eun on how to hold back tears and teach herself tennis.
Thing is, this only serves to make So-Eun a more likeable character, which she already is throughout the movie. The movie makes a point that the Korean public’s toxic relationship with its stars has caused Hye-Mi to respond in such a way but frankly it doesn’t really excuse her negligent behaviour and general shitty attitude towards child-rearing behind closed doors. So-Eun, on the other hand, is far more balanced and sensible a human than I would have been in that circumstance, and Jin Ji-Hee plays it spot-on; equal parts blunt, stubborn and secretly vulnerable.
If Star Nextdoor were a smarter, better film I’d have likely thought its portrayal of gender was a purposeful piece of satire. Here, though, it is a bit tougher to tell at this stage, but it’s a strange choice to make most of the women and girls in the film fame and boy-obsessed lunatics (even the otherwise level-headed So-Eun) while the men like God Ji-Hoon are presented as calm and logical. Kim Bo-Mi’s maternal grandmother figure is the only sane woman in a film filled with crazy but otherwise interesting and diverse female characters. But when the movie looks to take the mickey out of Korean fan culture – as mildly as it does – it’s only natural.
Star Nextdoor isn’t anything special. It had the potential to be a lot more biting than it was, and a real comedic takedown of the unhealthy relationship fans have with their idols. As it stands, it’s just sort of bland, with theoretically fascinating characters and plot threads. The stakes never feel high, and the tonal whiplash that happens between melodramatic scenes and outright goofy moments is too much at times. Star Nextdoor isn’t terrible, but its weird pacing and dubious characterisations aren’t even enough to make it particularly memorable. As it stands, it’s just sort of an OK mixed bag that never knows what it wants to be.
Verdict: Acceptable but barely noteworth, Star Nextdoor wastes an interesting premise on a fairly boring product.
Overall entertainment: 5/10
Snide remarks: Lots
Laughs: Like a couple?
Tennis: Kinda went nowhere, didn’t it
Star Nextdoor (2017)
Also known as: 이웃집 스타 (Iwootjib Seuta)
Director: Kim Sung-Wook
Writer: Jo Il-Joo, Kim Sung-Wook
Han Chae-Young – Hye-Mi
Jin Ji-Hee – So-Eun
Kim Bo-Mi – Park Young-Sook
Yoo Yeon-Mi – Mi-Yeon
Yoo Hae-Jung – Eun-Ha
Jung Do-Won – Kim Jung-Wook
Lim Hyung-Joon – reporter
Jung In-Gi – Representative Yoo
Sol-Bi – Mi-Hyang
Im Seul-Ong – Ji-Hoon
Ko Myeong-Hwan – Coach Jeon