Friday, October 31, 2008

New Sassy Girl

Anyone remotely familiar with contemporary Korean cinema will know of "My Sassy Girl", a 2001 romantic comedy about the unusual relationship between a young Seoul couple. The film, whose Korean title translates as "That Bizarre Girl", was a huge hit across Asia, fueling the "Korean wave" phenomenon and propelling its two young leads into stardom.

Given the incredible success of the original, it wasn't surprising that a U.S. company purchased the remake rights soon after its release. The project, however, took longer than anticipated to complete and now, seven years later and with the original film but a distant memory, the English-language version has finally hit South Korean theaters. (In the U.S., it was a straight-to-DVD release.)

The new Sassy Girl shares many traits with its Korean counterpart, including, unfortunately, its awkward English title. The remake stays true to the original storyline ― a shy, socially challenged college student falls for an impulsive young woman who makes bizarre demands of him. Many of the original's notorious misadventures are kept, including the drunken first encounter in the subway and the couple's surreal run-in with an AWOL soldier in an amusement park.

The new version, which takes place in New York City, has also added a few touches of its own, including the element of social class. The college student, named Charlie, is now a wide-eyed Midwestern boy who dreams of working for a tractor company, while the complicated young woman Jordan is an uptown New York girl who likes to hang out in contemporary art galleries. Another addition is Charlie's best friend Leo, a predictable sidekick character with overcharged hormones, bad hygiene and an endless stream of wisecracks.

Unfortunately, many of these changes are of the formulaic romantic comedy variety, which only serves to point out the deficiencies of the new version; namely, in trying to make the story more palatable, the American film waters down much of the original's edginess. The original sassy ― and borderline psychotic ― girl is toned down so that instead of the bizarre, we end up with the slightly quirky. Instead of vomiting in the subway train, we get a simple passing out in the station.

But the problems of the new version also point to another possibility ― that despite its massive popularity, the original film wasn't really that great to begin with. In fact, many of the problems that plague the U.S. film, such as random plot devices, incomprehensible edits and over-the-top dialogue, can be traced back to its Korean source. But moviegoers probably forgave much of it in the original Sassy Girl because they were smitten by the two charismatic lead actors, especially actress and model Jeon Ji-hyeon, who went on to achieve star status throughout Asia.

The new film, on the other hand, does not have Jun or actor Cha Tae-hyeon to help sell the frequent lapses in narrative logic. Although Elisha Cuthbert (24) and Jesse Bradford (Flags of Our Fathers) give adequate performances, they are not enough to keep what should be bizarre from feeling, well, rather ordinary.

In theaters. 92 minutes. 15 and over. Distributed by Showbox.
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