Happy Ero Christmas (해피 에로 크리스마스)

happy ero christmas

Whatever you’re expecting from this movie, you’re not going to get it. I thought it would be another fun, perhaps thoughtful romance from headliner Cha Tae-hyun of My Sassy Girl fame (and Scandal Makers years later). Others saw Kim Sun-a dressed in a sexy Santa costume on the promotional material and figured there would be more, or technically less, of that. Those might be the same people who took one look at the title and figured the movie would be a naughty holiday romp.

Any of these would have been a welcome alternative to the numbingly dull attempt at comedy that Happy Ero Christmas (or Happy Naked Christmas as it says on my DVD) turns out to be. There’s barely a sketch of a plot and the various players wander the landscape as characters in search of a story.

The film is marginally centered around Byung-gi (Cha), a beat officer whose highlight of dressing up as a police ambassador doll also counts as his lowlight. Besides moving up the ranks, other burning goals in his life include arresting Seok-doo (Park Yeong-gyu), a gang leader who once dumped him in a hot springs bath, and winning the love of Min-kyeong (Kim Sun-a), who works at the local bowling alley. However, his dreams are crushed when he finds himself competing with Seok-doo for Min-kyeong’s affections.

Overused as it may be, the classic love triangle is not to blame for this mediocre effort. Instead, the film suffers from uninspired writing that fails to shape its characters into people you want to care about. Despite the odd or affectionate quirk, no one earns by force of personality any lasting affection. Two hours later, they remain a blank.

There are a few faint glows, one of which comes in the form of Min-kyeong’s friend who wants to win the Miss Spa competition as an entry to bigger and better things. The two commiserate over their bad Christmas fortunes and take turns trying to hack phlegm onto unsuspecting passersby. Seok-doo gets an inkling of a backstory when he reveals something about his mother, but that ends up being more weird than endearing.

Those who want titillation need look elsewhere. Besides a few jokes thrown in for color, the most scandalous thing is the title. I suppose that is in keeping with the theme though. It’s a lifeless project all around, and I suspect none of the stars, who have done far better work, will want to be reminded of this movie.

Released: 2003
Alt Title: Happy Naked Christmas
Prod: Kim Nam-hee; Lee Yu-jin
Dir: Lee Geon-dong 이건동
Writer: Lee Geon-dong 이건동; Jung Hyun-shim 정현심; Lee Eon-hee 이언희
Cast: Cha Tae-hyun 차태현; Kim Sun-a 김선아; Park Yeong-gyu 박영규; Hong Kyoung-in 홍경인; Kim Ji-young 김지영; Baek Bong-ki 백봉기; Oh Tae-kyung 오태경; Lee Chung-ah 이청아
Time: 110 min
Lang: Korean
Country: Korea
Reviewed: 2014

The Beast and the Beauty (야수와 미녀)

야수와 미녀

A homely guy falls in love with a beautiful girl and doesn’t much mind his looks because she’s blind. But when she gets an eye transplant, he decides he’s too unattractive for her and pretends to be on an extended work assignment in Hawaii, leaving room for his high school rival and resident hottie to make his move.

Scenarios such as this one generally get cataloged under saccharine storylines I despise. Blindness as a plot device to elicit sympathy smacks of cheap storytelling and does more to reinforce stereotypes than to break them down. But leave it up to Korean filmmakers to make this movie worth watching.

Voice actor Dong-gun (Ryoo Seung-bum) is all manners a wonderful boyfriend to Hae-joo (Shin Min-a). He shields her from the rain, ties her shoelaces when they come undone, and flies paper airplanes off the roof with her. Despite this, he has no confidence in his rough visage, and when Hae-joo regains her sight, he quickly arranges a plastic surgery fixer upper before he is willing to see her.

Dong-gun is of course not monstrous looking at all; Ryoo gives his character a schlubby charm that would endear him to many a girl. It’s a role that could easily have sunk into the pathetic though. Dong-gun gets several chances to set it right with Hae-joo but never grabs the opportunity. Ryoo breathes life into Dong-gun’s tortured hesitations and makes his self-doubt both amusing and very human.

Shin, who might be Cherrie Ying’s Korean sister, also delivers a dazzling performance. She spends a lot of time as the girl of everyone’s dreams, capturing not only the attention of Dong-gun but also that of dishy policeman Jun-ha (Kim Kang-woo) and the tatted members of the Dragons gang. She gets on the receiving end of some patronizing behavior, especially from Dong-gun who thinks he needs to create a perfect world for her, but Shin brings out Hae-joo’s flinty side and shines especially in the ending scenes.

Kim rounds out the cast and likewise lives up to his part as the handsome, successful rival to Dong-gun. Yet the suave Jun-ha also has a tentative side that one doesn’t usually see in such characters. He can’t figure out why Hae-joo doesn’t go for him and manages to express his frustrations in a way that doesn’t come off as conceited.

The actors’ measured approach makes this movie a touching romantic comedy, satisfying with some true laugh out loud moments – including a humorous turn by Ahn Kil-kang as a gangster with a grudge – and a lot of heartfelt romance.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lim Seong-yong
Dir: Lee Gye-byeok 이계벽
Writer: Han Jeong-hyeop 한정협; Hwang Jo-yoon 황조윤
Cast: Ryoo Seung-bum 류승범; Shin Min-a 신민아; Kim Kang-woo 김강우; Ahn Kil-kang 안길강; Ahn Sang-tae 안상태; Yun Jong-shin 윤종신
Time: 102 min
Lang: Korean
Reviewed: 2014

Please Teach Me English (영어완전정복)

please teach me english

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.

Released: 2003
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
Reviewed: 2014