My Dear Girl, Jin-young (Saranghae! Jin-Youngah): Filmart Review

Kim Gyu-ri (right) and Park Won-sang in "My Dear Girl, Jin-young"
A sparkling performance from leading actress Kim Gyu-ri salvages an improvable screenplay and premise.

Andrew Lee Sung-eun's feature film debut chronicles the struggles in love and life for a zombie-obsessed female screenwriter.

Surveying his feature-length debut, it's not difficult to see who Andrew Lee Sung-eun takes his inspiration from: Arriving seven years after his festival-breakthrough short film I'm Jin-young, his effort revolves around a failing filmmaker, deploys quirky visual tropes (jump cuts, for example), and even boasts of a title that namechecks its leading character.

Hong Sang-soo indeed looms large over My Dear Girl, Jin-young. The film's similarities with Hong's recent output -- specifically those with women at its center, such as Our Sunhi and Nobody's Daughter Haewon -- make for interesting viewing, and Lee's decision to pepper the film with visual references (from Underworld and American Beauty to Amelie, with a discussion about Before Sunrise thrown in) could easily have backfired into making the proceedings excessively kitsch. Still, this element of a filmmaker's ordeal would help in propelling the film to festival territory, as it hits markets (including last week's Filmart) after a release in South Korea in November.

In a further congruence with Hong's films -- and a good one, fortunately -- My Dear Girl, Jin-young is propelled with a remarkable performance from its lead. Best known in filmic terms for more mainstream roles in period drama Portrait of a Beauty and Poongsan,Kim Gyu-ri (who also worked with Hong in 2010's Ha Ha Ha) has delivered a remarkable turn as the disheveled and disillusioned titular character, her layered performance easing the film through its rowdy first half and then its turn towards the melodramatic in the second

My Dear Girl begins with Jin-young appearing as the ditzy, socially awkward car-crash archetype that has become quite commonplace in East Asian cinema today (recent examples including the mainland Chinese box-office comedy Love is not Blind or Japanese festival hit Tamako in Moratorium).

Her obsession with zombie films irritates her producer as much as her insistence in writing her scripts with pencils; her infantile behavior is set in deep contrast with that of her beautiful and upwardly mobile stepsister Ja-young (Choi Yu-hwa), at whose apartment she's staying with. Jin-young's struggle at work is compounded by her visits to her stepmother (Yoon So-jeong), who raised the two girls alone from an early age but could now barely acknowledge anything because of the onset of dementia.

Jin-young's anxiety about the past (such as her desire to find the birth mother who gave her up when she was a baby) seemingly hit a new low as she runs into a former film-school senior, Tae-il (Park Won-sang). An oddball who has somehow courted minor success at Cannes -- this is someone who claims of treating Quentin Tarantino ("My Brother Qu") to his invented alcoholic concoctions on the Croisette -- he agrees to direct Jin-young's script, an arrangement which leads to ever-more hilarious exchanges between the uptight writer and the pervy-looking filmmaker.

But it's at home that the writer's heart pounds at the sight of Ja-young's newly arrived American-Korean tomboyish roommate Jamie (Jeon Su-jin, delivering lines in accented English and deliberately stilted Korean). Taking her as the model for her screenplay's vampire-hunter protagonist, the professional interest quickly mutates into desire -- an emotion thrown into disarray as the true nature of Jamie and Ja-young's relationship is revealed. (Lee's previous short, I'm Jin-young, could be seen as a precursor to this story, what with the premise being an elementary-school pupil struggling to declare her love to a female classmate.)

Lee has shaped all this as Jin-young's rite of passage, as she is jolted out of her spurned-child ways into revealing her mellower, more human colors. The same goes for the film itself, as the comical  tone which permeates the beginning of the film eventually transforms into more serviceable (and admittedly more accessible) relationship and familial drama. With all-round performances propping up an admittedly improvable narrative premise, My Dear Girl ends up an endearing vehicle veering away from merely rehashing past work, with a bubbling humanity breaking free at the end of the piece.

Venue: Hong Kong Filmart, March 25
Production : Indiestory Inc with Amuse Entertainment
Director: Andrew Lee Sung-eun
Cast: Kim Gyu-ri, Park Won-sang, Yoon So-jeon, Choi Yu-hwa, Jeon Su-jin
Producer : Hwang Dong-kung 
Director of Photography: Park Ji-sun 
Production Designer: Kim Ji-wan 
Editor : Son Yeon-ji 
Music: Jeong Yong-jin
International Sales: Indiestory Inc.
In Korean
102 minutes