Although this is a
broad and perhaps too dismissive generalization, I
can't help but feel that Korean romance movies - whether they be comedic, tragic, or both - are getting
increasingly stale. They seem to either try way too
hard to be "wacky" at the expense of plot, character
development, and real comedy or they resort to some
clichéd melodramatic plot point just to get viewers
to reach for their hankies (Yeah, terminal illness
weepie, I'm looking right at you).
Sure, both Korean romantic
comedies and dramas usually feature good-looking stars
and possess seductively glossy production values,
but where are the genuine laughs? The earned tears?
Or any actual innovation, for that matter? Time and
again, the audience is subjected to yet another tired
variation on K-drama convention #1: "Pretty Korean
People with Problems." Boo frickin' hoo.
Enter one welcome breath
of fresh air entitled My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart,
the devilishly clever send-up of the typical Korean
romantic comedy. This little genre-bending tale has
earned itself a bit of positive buzz, not to mention
a respectable take at the box-office since its release
in early 2006. The film takes a familiar storyline - "hapless loser meets the girl of his dreams" - and turns it on its head.
My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart
stars Park Yong-Woo (Ditto, Blood Rain) as
Hwang Dae-Woo, a shy English professor who's never
had so much as a date in his thirty-something years
of existence. Dae-Woo is a nice guy, but he's also
irritable and bit out of touch with modern women,
so his chances of wooing the girl of his dreams seems
somewhere between slim and none. With a little bit
of a push from a friend, Dae-Woo asks out his new
downstairs neighbor, Lee Mi-Na (Choi Gang-Hee).
Claiming to be an art
student with plans on studying in Italy, Mi-Na is
beautiful, intelligent, and elegant - everything
Dae-Woo's ever dreamed of in a woman and more. Well,
she's certainly a good enough gal to make him gleefully
toss out his hidden porno stash. And after a hilariously
awkward start, Dae-Woo's sincerity wins Mi-Na over,
and the sparks begin to fly between them. Yep, it's
just about time to cue the goofy, cutesy dating montage
we've come to expect in films of this ilk.
The scene comes and goes,
but just when you think you know where the film is
heading, My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart throws
its viewers a curveball. Things take a dramatically
strange turn when the love struck Dae-Woo pops over
to Mi-Na's place, only to discover a rough-looking,
naked man emerging from her bathroom. Coarse and threatening,
the guy looks like he belongs in another movie.
Unsurprisingly, Dae-Woo is
mortified, but Mi-Na later explains that the mystery
man is her ex-boyfriend, and he simply barged into
her house. She tells Dae-Woo that she'll "take care
of things," but he seems doubtful and tries to break
things off. But upon reflection, Dae-Woo agrees to
give Mi-Na time to sort things out, and before too
long, the ex is out of the picture for good. Literally.
At first, Dae-Woo is blissfully - and quite comically - unaware of his beloved's
potentially homicidal tendencies, but eventually,
her strange behavior and inconsistent cover stories
prompt him to hire a private eye to dig up clues about
her past. What follows is a bloody trail of dearly
departed ex-boyfriends, curiously large kimchi fridges,
spot-on blood-type/personality jokes, and even a stab
at the popularity of Bae Yong Joon.
Although I've tried to tread
as lightly as I can in spoiler territory, it's not
hard to infer exactly what secrets Mi-Na is hiding.
In fact, the film tips its hand fairly early into
the picture. This isn't some Audition-level
180-degree turn meant to shock the heck out of the
audience. Instead, My Sweet Yet, Brutal Sweetheart
aims to deliver an absorbing romance, a gut-busting
comedy, and suspenseful thriller all in one package.
And guess what? The filmmakers more or less succeed.
This HD-shot movie is reportedly
a low budget work, but it certainly doesn't look like
one. In fact, the film's trademarked Korean movie
"sheen" actually makes the whole experience a bit
jarring, as its good looks sometimes belie exactly
what's going on in the picture itself. Whatever its
genre aspirations, My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart
is a black comedy at heart, able to wring both effective
drama and genuine humor from its subject matter, sometimes
even at the same time. Park Yong-Woo's performance
is largely responsible for the film's ability to dramatically
multi-task, as he makes for a likeable, if largely
irascible everyman. He's not some pretty boy superstar
masquerading as the average joe; he's the real deal.
Kudos should also go to the
filmmakers for pushing Mi-Na's character to the limit,
and not taking the easy way out in terms of her circumstances
or her motivations. Things are a bit more complicated
and unsettling about the film than one might expect,
even as you find yourself laughing all the way to
the film's unexpected, oddly gratifying Singapore
finale. In fact, there's something a bit unnerving
about the ending, a feeling that just wouldn't arise
in your average romantic comedy or drama. I don't
know if that makes My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart
a great film, but its brilliant knack for working
within the formula while turning the whole damn thing
on its head sure is fun to watch. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)