Please Teach Me English gets off to a fast start. Yeong-ju (Lee Na-young) is a young public official who gets sent to an English learning center after she is unable to assist a disgruntled foreigner. She and her motley band of classmates try their best to spit out difficult English sounds and words under the direction of their Australian teacher Cathy (Angela Kelly). But for Yeong-ju, or Candy, learning English soon takes a backseat to attracting class clown and playboy Moon-su, aka Elvis (Jang Hyuk), who doesn’t reciprocate the attention and instead has eyes for Cathy.
The first half hour is fun, punchy comedy. The movie takes on a cartoonish tone, literally through the use of cartoons, but also with speech bubbles, imaginary video game scenarios, and lots of over-the-top humor. Lee does a delightful turn as the plain Jane who tries to be subtle about her affections and fails miserably. Though filmmakers hide her good looks behind chunky glasses and a choppy haircut, Lee’s comedic skills allow her character’s goofiness to shine through. She is matched by Jang, who takes what might have been a rascally one-note lothario and instead creates a sensitive if sometimes outlandish loner who is desperate for some positive reinforcement in his life.
The beginning is also wildly entertaining for people who have taught English in Asia or for those who have struggled to learn English there. The film spreads the laughs around and pokes fun at both sides of the classroom and the tutoring industry. On her way to her first lesson, a dizzying cloud of English churns noisily before Candy’s eyes. She’s petrified at the thought of learning the language and doesn’t understand why everyone’s so obsessed with it. “What’s wrong with being born in Korea and only knowing Korean?” she asks. Kelly gets a meatier role than most foreigners are afforded in these types of films and shows Cathy to be a well meaning but often frustrated teacher who may need to brush up on her pedagogy. It’s familiar and truthful and very playful.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the film doesn’t follow through, and the movie quickly loses steam after the initial batch of jokes. It runs at least a half hour too long and, like a slow English lesson, needlessly treads over familiar territory. Rather than making each scene count, too much time is wasted on rehashing earlier character and plot points. What starts as a spirited chase between Candy and Elvis powers down just when it should kick up, and the love story gives way to a more dramatic subplot about Elvis’s sister who was given up for adoption.
The movie’s tone definitely jumps around in the second and third acts, but it’s the pacing and not the comedic and dramatic shifts that are the problem. Elvis’s testy relationship with his mother, who takes out her family frustrations on him, makes him a more interesting and sympathetic romantic lead than usual. Their attempts to reconnect with his sister is actually a touching twist to an otherwise routine comedy.
However, it throws the film, or at least these filmmakers, off balance. This is a movie about learning English, specifically the people who do, but does it want to focus on timid Candy, who tries to conquer language and love, or blustery Elvis, who puts on a show in order to do a son’s duty? Or does it want to be about both? The film stretches you in several directions and only manages to settle on anything at the very end, but the endearing performances by Lee and Jang will be enough to tide you over.
Prod: Choi Jeong-hwa
Dir: Kim Sung-su 김성수
Writer: Noh Hye-yeong 노혜영
Cast: Lee Na-young 이나영; Jang Hyuk 장혁; Na Moon-hee 나문희; Angela Kelly; Kim In-mun 김인문; Hwang Hyo-eun 황효은; Jeong Seok-yong 정석용
Time: 118 min
Lang: Korean, English