Sunday, March 24, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Please Teach Me English (2003)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Lee Na-young, Jang Hyuk, Angela Kelly, Jeong Seok-yong, Na Moon-hee

From my understanding, Kim had gotten really deep into teaching film at University during this point in his career, and he made this film at that time. Why bring that up? I'm not sure. I think part of me is looking for a way to preface this write-up, knowing that the finished film is just not very good. Is Please Teach Me English a complete abomination to cinema? No, but it is certainly a stain on director Kim's otherwise pretty phenomenal filmography. People say even the greatest filmmakers can stumble, which is certainly the case here. While the film is fun and certainly doesn't take itself seriously whatsoever, it's this broad and over-the-top abrasive approach to the comedy that somehow both works in the film's favor and also as its very own downfall. This film certainly has garnered a fan base over the years and, in fact, was recently remastered and released on physical media once again in South Korea, so there is that. I will try my best to speak on the positive and negative aspects of this film, but I admit that I sometimes struggle to do so adequately, so bear with me.

The story here is about a woman named Na Young-ju, a very odd and eccentric woman who works at a local government building. One fateful day, she is approached by an upset foreigner and fails to be able to help him out in his dire situation (he is charged for something he claims he shouldn't have been). She cannot understand what he is saying and he grows quite upset. Upon finishing this scenario, Na is forced by her place of employment to enter mandated English classes. When she arrives, she immediately begins to develop feelings for her classmate Park Moon-su, who is a bit of (a lot) a womanizer. The two seem worlds apart, and yet their worlds seem to keep coming together, and soon, which is by no means a spoiler, a romance is formed. It is all very predictable and will never once have you guessing where things will go. What will surprise you, outside of the very typical and even by-the-numbers narrative developments, would be the humor. As I mentioned, it is played very broadly and a ton of it has aged awfully. The aging really comes from the fact that this film is filled to the brim with extremely dated CGI, which is really bad. I can only imagine how that new Blu-ray emphasizes this poor element even more, accentuating the visual atrocities with every cleaned-up frame. Yikes.

In all of the weirdness and humor that doesn't really work for me, I did find the two to have a sort of chemistry that manages to work through all of the things that don't. Jang Hyuk went on to have a very successful career as an action star, and while he has roles that vary, this seems to be very different from what people know him for nowadays, and I actually really like that. You can tell he is having a ton of fun here and that reflects on screen. He just lights up every scene he is in and he and Lee Na-young play off one another very well. I believed in their unlikely blossoming romance. You feel for these characters as their arcs begin to be more explored, and things are revealed in each of their backstories. I'm not sure that when the melodrama kicks in it works so well with the odd nature of everything else, and yet again, it is somehow just engaging and watchable enough that you feel at least mildly invested. I respect Director Kim for doing something so night and day different from his previous works; I just don't feel it pays off anywhere near the level of his other works. I would certainly watch another comedy by him, but I hope he would focus it better than he did here.

The side characters here are fun, as is the case with most of Kim's works. He really knows how to take even the smallest roles and makes them feel memorable and fun. The classmates are genuinely funny and quirky enough to make you feel invested in them, with the film deciding to break away from the main couple for a few scenes. The English teacher, played by Angela Kelly, does a great job in her role, and I enjoyed where things went with her character. It does seem like there was a bit of odd dubbing in post for her, and it seems like she could've been voiced by two different people seemingly. I could be totally wrong, but it felt that way while listening to her throughout. She does fine, but there is something uncanny about her voice in certain instances that makes me wonder. Lee Na-young is fine as the leading lady. Still, her character just is way too much at times, even for an odd and extremely eccentric character, which I've seen in a ton of similar comedies, but that being said, there are certain scenes where she just nails it and blows me away. That is a recurring feeling while watching this one.

Admittedly, this is the one Kim film I struggle with. I love these types of comedies, which there are a ton of in South Korean cinema of this era, but this is not one of the greats. It's not even really one of the goods, but it is one of the watchable attempts. Some comedies have no redeeming values, but this is certainly not the case for Please Teach Me English. As I said, it manages to do just enough right to keep you engaged. To what level will it keep you engaged, though? That is the question. I suppose it depends on your tolerance for these types of comedies. I was able to watch through and, from time to time, got a smile across my face. It is certainly charming at times, but it really suffers from being such a product of the time and in a bad way. This is the one time I can say in Kim's filmography that most will just want to skip out on this one. Maybe I'd recommend it to Kim completionists, like myself, or rabid Korean rom-com fans, but everyone else should move on elsewhere. This gets a very minor recommendation from me and only to a very certain crowd.

Written by Josh Parmer

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