Part One: The Success of My Sassy Girl…or Surfing the Korean Wave
Played by the ever-lovable Cha Tae-hyeon, he plays a strong lead as the innocent, yet caring Gyeon-woo. As an engineering student that lives life whimsically, he goes through the daily routine of going to school, drinking with friends, and checking out the occasional girl here and there.
Yet, that fateful moment when he witnesses a girl throwing up on the subway (see his “Oh” face above), his life would changed forever. Dating hilarity and craziness would soon follow, much to Gyeon-woo’s chargin.
If you were wondering what all the fuss was about, regarding the so-called Korean Wave of popular culture that cut a swathe through Asia, before sweeping across the rest of the world, you will have to look back to it’s humble beginnings in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In the cinematic sense, you will find early sign-posts of the burgeoning brilliance of Korean film – particularly in the romance genre – emerging at the close of the 20th and cusp of the 21st century.
Evident in such wonderfully whimsical films as Christmas in August and Art Museum By the Zoo, these represented remarkably assured productions and heralded the rise of such modern masters as Hur Jin-Ho.
However, the arguably most defining film of the era, which virtually single-handedly created and popularised the romantic comedy genre in Korean cinema, was the one and only My Sassy Girl.
It was released as part of the initial vanguard of the Korean Wave, which was at that point only entering the early stages of its ascendancy before going on to stamp its mark across the rest of the world.
This is one of the master works that made the more established cinematic hubs in the region – particularly Hong Kong and Japan – really sit up and take notice as the new kid on the block was making its presence truly felt. Korea signaled its intentions loud and clear and it would not go too far in stating that it marked a paradigm shift in the region.
Meet “The Girl”
Acted by the cute, adorable Jeon Ji-hyun, she plays a girl in need. But she’s no regular damsel in distress. Rather, she hides her pain by being strong and independent.
And also sassy. You know, threatening her boyfriends with the quote “wanna die” and asking them to wear high-heels.
When she finds out that she passed out in a hotel room with a guy she’s never met before, Gyeon-woo, she instantly goes on the offensive. Thus, begins the wacky relationship between the two.
It is a film that has since been infinitely imitated but has yet to be surpassed, in spite of all the would-be rivals that followed – some notably even by the same director, actress or production team. It had that perfect balance between hopeless romanticism, slapstick comedy and tear-jerking melodrama.
An effervescent chemistry between the leads carried the narrative of this budding would-be romance as it traversed through some wildly fantastical cut-scenes, random UFO sightings, genre-bending shifts, and some time-traveling story elements for good measure.
While over ten years old now, it is still impossible to fathom the influence of My Sassy Girl as the standard for Korean romantic comedy – and by extension, the rest of Asia. The film that defined and in the same breath destroyed the genre – setting the lofty benchmark to which other films have since aspired and valiantly sought to attain, but have ultimately failed to fully grasp.
Part 2: Making and Breaking Korean Romantic Comedy Genre…or Wiping Out
Despite all that My Sassy Girl defined and achieved for the romantic comedy genre and ultimately for the Korean film industry, I wonder sometimes if it resulted in some unexpected fallout along the way.
A genre-making, and perhaps by the same token, a genre-breaking film.
It is an unspoken truth that the films which have followed have been but frail imitations of their initial forebearer, and their incessant search to try to replicate the formula that made the original sassy girl so successful, have perhaps been the bane that has led to the current stagnation of the genre throughout the region. It’s much like how Hollywood romantic comedies have themselves become formulaic remakes of the classics that still stand the test of time.
Windstruck was decidedly unstriking. The Classic was far from it. April Snow failed to thaw. 100 Days with Mr. Arrogant found itself a couple days short. And 200 Pound Beauty was ultimately lacking and fleetingly shallow despite all the weight behind it.
So what made My Sassy Girl work, but left all those would-be successors so lacklustre?
What exactly was its formula to success? Was it simply released in the right place at the right time? Was it the alignment of the planets, the rotation of the stars or sheer, dumb luck? And how did such a successful and defining film ultimately lead to the downfall of the romantic comedy genre as a whole?
First, I must admit that I have not lost complete faith in the Korean romantic comedy genre. There have been some fine entries since My Sassy Girl, and I sense particular life returning in the current crop of romantic films, such as 2012’s definitive Architecture 101.
But just as any modern Hollywood romance will undoubtedly be compared to the films in their initial golden age of cinema, or their closer contemporary classics (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and the early oeuvre of Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan come closest to mind), Korean romantic comedies remain mired in the very long shadow of the singularly unique My Sassy Girl.
Emerging as it did amidst the early beginnings of the Korean wave as a spiritual successor to such modern romantic standards as Christmas in August (which the film directly cites as setting the benchmark for modern romantic on-screen couples), My Sassy Girl managed to break free of the long established romantic and melodramatic formulas, successfully incorporating some winning comedic elements that thoroughly invigorated the experience and made it completely surprising and utterly memorable.
As with any film focusing on the romantic relationship between characters, the dynamic between the two leads remains paramount to success. And while romantic films in general tend to be a mixed bag in this department, My Sassy Girl managed to find that rare alchemy of everyday appeal and otherworldly charm, resulting in a dream pairing that felt completely natural and effortlessly brilliant. She – the manic pixie dream girl – come to deliver Him – the unlikely every-man – from his mundane existence.
But what the film does so well, and with relative ease, is the re-reversal of the classic roles, where what originally seemed the unlikely tale of the girl saving the guy from the meaningless plod of his uneventful life, is ultimately flipped to the guy saving the girl from the fallout of her lost love through the slow mending of the fragments of her broken heart.
Just how influential is My Sassy Girl?
To say My Sassy Girl is simply a movie about a nice guy and a random, cute, abusive girl is an understatement. The film was one of the major influences of the Hallyu Wave — the spread of Korean pop culture to the world.
For many international movie fans, nearly all of them cite My Sassy Girl as their introduction to Korean cinema (the other Korean film being Oldboy). The romantic-comedy was a hit with movie-goers, as it portrayed romance in a silly, fun way.
And who could forgot Jeon Ji-hyun as the “sassy girl” herself. Her incredibly acting popularized the term “sassy”. Rightly or wrongly, her masterful portrayal also stereotyped Korean women as sassy.
The movie also spawned many other countries’ own My Sassy Girl as well. India, the US, Japan, China, and Telegu all made their own take on the hugely, popular film.
Although, we cannot recommend watching the Chinese version though. It’s so bad, the Chinese retake, My Sassy Girl 2, made our Tuesday Terrible.
The protagonists are also infused with a rare depth that successive films failed to fully develop. These were not merely two-dimensional caricatures, but complex individuals who lived and breathed in their own right. They were far from perfect, scarred and broken in their own way, and inevitably weighed down by the weight of the world.
Furthermore, while other works have successfully transposed onto film the idea of juxtaposing this decidedly odd couple – where one side of the pairing has their life turned upside-down by the unexpected intrusion of a stranger – they spend far too much time dwelling on the dynamic differences of these two conflicting personalities thrown together to somehow mesh into a single, cohesive world view.
While there were enough highjinks and moments of slapstick comedy to go around, they only scratched the surface of the possibilities offered by such a rich set-up.
Successive films have trotted out a rotating cavalcade of updated renditions of “sassy” girls and “ordinary” guys and all manner of variations in between, but this futile clinging to a tried and true recipe, while simply exchanging the ingredients with the latest flavour of the moment, has ultimately failed to produce any further cinematic or culinary brilliance. Lightning cannot strike twice and no two meals are exactly the same.
A further trope that the film championed was the “genre flip”, which has since become a benchmark of Korean cinema, to the point that long time fans find themselves awaiting the inevitable moment where the rug is pulled from under them and the film they thought they were watching completely changes pace and shifts focus to something entirely different.
This was a refreshing change when it was initially employed, but it reached a point of over-saturation in the years immediately following My Sassy Girl.
Directors began utilising this genre flip as a cheap means of manipulating the audience’s emotions, and failed to put in the necessary work beforehand building up the story and the characters in order to make such a change meaningful and worthwhile.
And when such flimsy tricks were employed carelessly and inappropriately by novice directors, the effect was often so exceedingly jarring to the audience, to the point of feeling betrayed by the director’s seeming intentions and the story they thought they were watching.
Additionally, it has long been a trope that romantic comedies remain decidedly in the “chick flick” category, but this film succeeded precisely because it offered something of value to guys as well. It’s fundamentally an underdog story – and who doesn’t love an underdog or cheer for their eventual triumph over adversity?
We have all been down that road before after all – some walking it for the whole of their life. The characters are far from perfect and remain fundamentally flawed, yet they find moments of rare clarity in between, where anything seems possible. Is this not the way things should be? The story of any other life in all its everyday realities, much like any other and unlike any other. It holds a message for both guys and girls and can be of value to each of us.
One last important factor we must point out is that the characters never actually kissed or said “I love you” – which is in many ways the standard go-to option of the genre and is ultimately a cop out. Yet despite this seeming handicap the director and the cast managed to make the audience completely believe in the validity of the relationship unfolding on screen without resorting to such cliché crutches.
And just as MSG remains an essential ingredient to Asian cooking, My Sassy Girl is an essential component to a full understanding and appreciation of Asian cinema – particularly Korean romantic comedies. And just like MSG, we know it is not good for us, but it tastes so good that we cannot help ourselves.