Before I review My Little Bride, I should make a small confession: James Yuen’s My Wife is 18 is a guilty pleasure of mine. The 2002 film’s story of an arranged marriage between a thirty-year-old man (Ekin Cheng) and an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl (Charlene Choi) probably shouldn’t work at all, but the film somehow defies the already lowered expectations of its cradle-robbing premise to become something more amusing, not to mention involving, than it has any right to be. Believe it or not, the entire film actually hinges on Ekin Cheng’s performance. Had he not imbued his character with a sense of amiable, dopey dignity, then the film (itself already built on a flimsy, slightly hard to swallow premise) would fall apart the moment his character came off looking like some sort of a horndog lecher.
With all that said, it seems obvious, then, that My Little Bride, the 2004 Korean remake (!) of My Wife is 18 would have to utilize the same sort of approach in regard to the characterization of its male protagonist, laying a lot of responsibility for the film’s success on the performance of lead actor Kim Rae-Won. Is he up to the challenge? Even after seeing the film, I can’t really answer that question, but it seems clear to me that the filmmakers were definitely not.
Plot-wise, My Little Bride is essentially the same as its Hong Kong predecessor, albeit with a more Korean flavor. Due to a pact that their grandparents made during the Korean War (not to mention the inclusion of a deathbed “final wish”), high school student Bo-Eun (Moon Geun-Young) and womanizing college student Sang-Min (Kim Rae-Won) are forced into an arranged marriage. Despite being childhood friends, the two don’t seem to like each other much anymore, so when they finally agree to accept this ridiculous arrangement, they do so with the proviso that each can lead his or her own life.
As such, Bo-Eun starts dating a handsome, more age-appropriate baseball player she’d already had a crush on prior to her marriage, while Sang-Min simply continues his swinging single life. Somewhere in this mess the audience is supposed to believe that these two will and should fall in love. By the tone in that last sentence, you can probably determine how convincing the film was. From its gimmicky concept to its oh-so tired “We hate each other - no, wait, we’re perfect for each other!” plot structure, My Little Bride is almost insulting in how blandly formulaic it is.
The filmmakers do try some different things in their remake. Unlike the twelve-year age gap of My Wife is 18, the age difference in My Little Bride has been adjusted to eight years for Bo-Eun and Sang Min. However, the film isn’t as well-served by the increased closeness in age, with two problems becoming apparent. First of all, Moon Geun-Young looks and acts like she’s twelve. She’s cute in the role and it’s easy to see why she’d have her fair share of fans after her performance in the film, but her adolescent cutesiness doesn’t actually help viewers accept the film’s contrived and unconventional “May/December romance" (for lack of a better term). Of course, many romantic seem unbelievably sexless, as if such events as “falling in love” and “getting married” have no erotic or physical component whatsoever. However, Moon Geun-Young’s prepubescent-skewed performance and physicality brings those issues to light in complicated, often uncomfortable ways.
Still, purely “cute” romantic comedies can work, depending on how the onscreen relationship is portrayed, a fact which brings us to the film’s second and much bigger problem: Sang-Min is an juvenile, annoying rake and also a bit of a creep. Considering Bo-Eun’s physical and psychological immaturity and Sang-Min’s even more pronounced mental immaturity and lothario sleaziness, I’m not exactly sure why the audience should be rooting for this couple to get together. That is, aside from the fact that that’s precisely where the narrative momentum is taking us.
For example, during one stretch of the film, Sang-Min attempts to take advantage of his position as Bo-Eun’s husband, trying his best to sleep with his wife despite not even seeming to like her. He even goes so far as to pull down his boxers to “show her the goods.” I suppose this sequence is all meant in good fun, but Sang-Min’s utter churlishness in these and other scenes turned out to be more than a little uncomfortable to watch. Even worse, he doesn’t really undergo a believable transformation, further undermining the film’s need for “these two crazy kids to get together” by the final reel.
The critical reception towards My Little Bride seems to rate the film as a cute, fluffy comedy on par with perennial Korean favorite, My Sassy Girl. But I would submit that a more sober look at the film, now several years removed from the excitement of the Korean cinema boom, would demonstrate that it’s a largely flawed film, one that doesn’t really overcome its contrived premise. This occurs in large part due to My Little Bride’s inability to give the audience a relationship it should actually root for. It’s never good when “happily ever after” leaves you feeling more than a little creeped out. Man, I never thought I’d miss Ekin Cheng so much. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)