How to Use Guys With Secret Tips: Film Review
A wacky Korean comedy about women, filmmaking and self-help manuals has plenty of visual energy
A self-help video teaches an overworked young woman how to relate to men in the surprisingly lively South Korean rom com How to Use Guys With Secret Tips (formerly Man Manual). Spiced up by bright comedians, its claim to uniqueness is its promiscuous use of animation to stay fresh and amusing. Recounting the heroine’s struggle to assert herself professionally in a casually sexist man’s world, director Lee Won-suk uses black comedy to raise the film’s sophistication quotient without disenfranchising the teenagers who will be its main audience. It was released in Korea on Feb. 14.
The hook for offshore viewers is that it also falls into the hallowed category of whacky comedies about the filmmaking process. Overworked, plain jane Bona (Lee Si-yeong) has struggled for years trying to work her way up the ladder as an A.D. for a pompous director of commercials. Hiding her gender as best she can in an androgynous hoodie, Bona drudges away without making the slightest progress, her private life non-existent, until one night the crew leaves her behind on the beach.
Awakening cold and alone, she stumbles across Dr. Swarisky (a magician-like Park Yeong-gyu) behind the counter of his mobile book and video stand. The remarkably persuasive hawker calls her “a beautiful pearl stuck in seafood soup” and stops her in her tracks. He proceeds to sell her the instructional video of the title, which changes her life as promised, as she follows its “tips." The three characters in the spoofy video are the good doctor and a straight-faced male and female model, used to illustrate the attraction between the sexes.
As trite as the storyline sounds, it actually plays out with an appealing tongue-in-cheek craziness, at least in the film’s first half. Outrageous sexual innuendos are sandwiched between Bona’s disasters at work and on the romantic front. She’s shooting a commercial when her ex-boyfriend Lee Seung-jae (Oh Jeong-se) steps out of a van wearing puffy hair and sunglasses. Despite his tacky looks and total lack of acting talent, Lee has become a pop culture star riding the Korean entertainment wave, while Bona got caught up in her ambition to be a director. After some false starts, the two get back together in a classic rom com on-and-off relationship, in which they’re never on the same romantic page at the same time.
In the meantime Bona learns to smile and wheedle and wrap men around her little finger. Lee's not the only one who falls for her newly learned tricks; she also gets an important producer on her side. Alas, it’s a short-lived triumph, because there’s always someone more cynical than her waiting to grab the limelight.
As it rolls toward the finish line, the comedy becomes progressively less caustic and experimental. Eventually Bona becomes an object of media interest and the press links her to an assortment of romantic partners, real or imaginary. Still there are a few memorably pungent lines, like when she tells one of her overlords, “You became famous and arrogant, why shouldn’t I?”
Young comedians Lee Si-yeong and Oh Jeong-se have a relaxed chemistry that makes them work well as a couple as they switch roles back and forth. But while Bona becomes straighter as the film progresses, Lee gets ever weirder, until his humiliations culminate in an irresistible race through the night stark naked, right into a police block.
On his first feature, writer-director Lee Won-suk displays his frantic, nearly inexhaustible imagination. The wacky backgrounds, visual patterns and animation fly by fast and furious, even as the story drags on, making one wish the tale had ended sooner and on a less predictable note.
Venue: Hong Kong Filmart
Production companies: Sopoong Film
Cast: Lee Si-yeong, Oh Jeong-se, Park Yeong-gyu, Lee Won-jong, Kim Jeong-tae, Kyeong Soo-jin
Director: Lee Won-suk
Screenwriters: Lee Won-suk, Noh Hye-Young
Producers: Kim Hyun-Shin, Yoon Chang-Sook, Eo Ji-Yeon
Director of photography: Kim Sun-Ryung
Sales Agent: Daisy & Cinergy
No rating, 116 minutes