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.