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Crazy First Love

Cha Tae-Hyun and Son Ye-Jin
AKA: First Love Necklace  
Year: 2003  
Director: Oh Jong-Bok  
  Cast: Cha Tae-Hyun, Son Ye-Jin, Yoo Dong-Geun, Sung Ji-Ru, Lee Byeong-Wook, Kim Jin-Hyeok
  The Skinny: A hapless shlub tries to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart in this horrible excuse for a romantic comedy. Crazy First Love pretty much proves that "wacky" doesn't necessarily mean "funny." And just an FYI: shoehorning a terminal illness melodrama midway into the plot isn't exactly the best way to improve an already faltering attempt at comedy. A prime example of what's wrong with Korean cinema.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      Wong Jing makes a Korean movie! Well, not really, but considering how many characteristics Crazy First Love shares with some of the man's worst films, one can't help but wonder if the infamous director had a hand in making this complete turd of a movie. Annoying characters, raving misogyny, contrived melodrama, and a poorly-executed storyline dominate the entirety of Crazy First Love, making it hands down one of the worst Korean films this reviewer has ever seen. Of course, Wong Jing isn't actually responsible for this cinematic masterpiece; that dubious distinction goes to Oh Jong-Bok. In many ways, Crazy First Love exemplifies the very worst Korean cinema has to offer; it's like a shiny, beautifully-wrapped Christmas present with nothing but a lump of coal inside.
     My Sassy Girl's Cha Tae-Hyun stars as Son Jae-Il, a troublemaking high school student sporting a ridiculous afro. Tae-Il's one aspiration in life is to marry his childhood friend and supposed first love, Joo Il-Mae (Son Ye-Jin, from The Classic and April Snow), but as rebellious as he seems, Jae-Il is actually old-fashioned enough to want her father's consent first. Il Mae's dad, Joo Young-Dal (Yoo Dong-Geun) (who also doubles as the boy's stern high school teacher) has promised his daughter's hand in marriage to Jae-Il on numerous occasions, only to go back on his word each and every time. Young-Dal is putting the boy on the path of self-improvement, while at the same time protecting his daughter's chastity. This seemingly unending chain of broken promises eventually leads to Jae-Il embarking on one, supposedly final challenge: if he goes to college and passes his law exam, then Il-Mae is his for the taking. In the meantime, however, Jae-Il promises to watch over his beloved, while at the same time swearing off any and all romance with her until their wedding day.
     Of course, this wouldn't be too insulting if Il-Mae actually wanted to marry Jae-Il, but for half of the film's running time, her thoughts toward her obsessed beau are kept from the audience. Instead, we watch as Jae-Il follows her to college, dogging her every move. While he dotes on her like an overprotective mother hen, he also fends off any and all competing suitors, which pretty much makes Il-Mae's life a living hell. Out of sexual frustration (and on the suggestion of one her gal pals) Il-Mae makes a pass at Jae-Il, but he turns her down in order to honor the pact he made with her father since he believes there'll be plenty of time for love once the marriage happens. But for Il-Mae, time seems to be running out. Based on her teary-eyed reaction and grave comments, it's not hard for a viewer to guess that a switch to full-blown melodrama is right around the corner.
     When the big day finally comes and Dad gives his blessing, wedding bells should start ringing, right? Not so fast: it turns out Il-Mae doesn't want to marry Tae-Il. No surprise there, considering the fact that a) there isn't much of a romance between the two and b) she is given no say in the matter whatsoever. What is a surprise, however, is what happens next. Young-Dal and Jae-Il decide to team up in order to win over Il-Mae and protect her from the overtures of other young men. But rather than try some sort of truly romantic display, Jae-Il shows up at her workplace, messes up her dates, and pretty much makes an ass out of himself, all the while asserting that Il-Mae is his woman - in effect, his property. Charming fellow, huh?
     But just when you think Il-Mae is resisting marriage because she's rebelling against her father or because she simply doesn't love Tae-Il, the movie drops a bombshell, although not an unexpected one. It seems the real reason she doesn't want to be with Jae-Il isn't because he's an irredeemable lout, but because she's suffering from - yep, you guessed it - a terminal illness. In fact, it's the same one that took her mother's life. Worried that the ever-dedicated Jae-Il will suffer the same heartache as her widowed father (who isn't suffering THAT much, but more on that later), she decides to not only start seeing another guy, but to MARRY him, even though she knows that he's got a bunch of women on the side. That noise you're hearing is most likely the collective "Huh?" emanating from the mouths of dumbfounded moviegoers everywhere. Despite the baffling logic involved on Il-Mae's part, it's clear that Tae-Il has feelings for her. When he learns the truth about her condition, will he able to win her back in time before she weds someone else? And better yet, will anyone actually care?
     From the first scene to the very last, Crazy First Love is a horrible mess. While My Sassy Girl deftly walked the tonal tightrope between comedy and melodrama, this film fails miserably to strike any sort of balance. The first three quarters of the film are dedicated to Jae-Il's ridiculous quest to win Il-Mae's hand, while the last section delves headlong into melodrama. Although tonal shifts aren't all that uncommon in Korean cinema, the actual mingling of the two leaves a lot to be desired in Crazy First Love. The first portion of the film is so over-the-top and unreal that there's no weight to anything that happens there; it's all just a big, brutally unfunny joke. Taking that into consideration, it's no surprise that it's difficult to transition into the film's latter portions when all the tear-inducing histrionics start to occur. That transition might have been more believable if Tae-Il had actually been a likeable protagonist, but sadly, he isn't.
     Cha Tae-Hyun, who was so charming in the mega-hit My Sassy Girl, is misused here, playing perhaps the most annoying man on the planet. His character spends the entirety of the movie either shouting or crying. The unflinching sense of entitlement his character possesses toward Il-Mae is disgusting, as is her father's control freak behavior. Ultimately, Tae-Il is an exaggerated, completely one-dimensional character, while Il-Mae, for what little Son Ye-Jin is allowed to do in the role, is played slightly more real. As a result, it feels like Cha and Son are acting in two totally different films, an inconsistency that hurts the film's believability factor.
     And considering the film's complete lack of regard for Il-Mae's right to decide, you would think this movie was depicting a story from another century, not something that takes place in the contemporary age. What Il-Mae wants never seems to be a concern until about one hour into the film, and even then, it's kept secret from the audience as to why she's acting the way she is. Early on, it's unclear whether Il-Mae really likes Tae-Il, even when she tries to seduce him, since it's played more like a move of desperation, not love. And aside from Tae-Il's annoying qualities, one of the biggest problems with this romantic comedy is that there's no chemistry between the leads. What we have here is a total mismatch between a loudmouth, whiny man-child, and a pretty, smart, if unnecessarily opaque, woman. This could have been rectified with a more "opposites attract" approach to the plot, but since the film never really gives these two a chance for any romantic moments, Il-Mae's late coming revelation that she loves Tae-Il seems forced and unrealistic. Exactly why she would fall for an immature big brother-type is something the film never even tries to explain.
     Crazy First Love is filled with a lot of odd moments as well. The unintentional gay subtext of the film would be funny if it weren't so bizarre: Young-Dal lovingly rubbing salve on Tae-Il's bare ass after spanking him with a cane, the latter's strange propensity for shoving his fingers up the rears of Il-Mae's potential suitors (and the fact that they bend over and take it!), and Young-Dal's grabbing of his potential son-in-law's erection while wearing a look of pure ecstasy. What the hell?
     As with most lame-brained melodramas, Crazy First Love suffers considerably from Idiot Plot Syndrome, as it's chock full of contrived situations and moronic logic. What exactly is the purpose of Il-Mae marrying someone else? The idea is supposed to be that the new guy has so many women on the side that when she dies, he'll be able to move on. And by marrying someone else, Jae-Il will forget about her and find another girl. But what's missing in this equation is whether a) she loves the new guy and b) why she wants to get married at all. It's one thing to have a relationship with someone else, but marriage? Unless it's solely because she'd like to have a fancy stadium-seated wedding before she croaks, then I'm guessing it's really because the filmmakers wanted to do the umpteenth variation on The Graduate's memorable ending. And even if her plan works and Tae-Il actually does move on, it's not like he's going to somehow forget how he felt for her when she kicks the bucket. So her "honorable" decision to spare him any pain is a failure from the get-go. Even worse, her father, who strangely can't see the obvious parallels between his own situation and that of Tae-Il's, stands idly by, apparently waiting for everything to be resolved at the climax.
     I suppose melodrama fans are supposed to eat this up, but when such a tried-and-true formula is executed so haphazardly without any regard for the audience's patience, it's hard not to get a little insulted by the inept filmmaking involved. With or without the terminal illness angle, Crazy First Love could have easily been a film about an immature punk who finally grows up and learns the meaning of true love, a father who discovers it's time to let go, and a daughter who finds out that she's got the right to be strong and independent. Maybe all that's buried under the mountain of crap called Crazy First Love, but you'd have to look really hard to see it. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)
Notes: • The English subtitles on the Tai Seng DVD are on the Chinese language version of the film. The Korean language version has only Chinese subtitles.
Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS
Removable English and Korean Subtitles
    DVD (USA)
Region 0 NTSC
Tai Seng Entertainment
Korean, Cantonese, and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 2.0
Embedded Chinese and English Subtitles
   Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen