Thursday, August 17, 2006

Cast:
Cha Tae-Hyun, Song Hye-Kyo, Lee Soon-Jae, Park Hyo-Joon, Moon Jeong-Hee, Kim Yoon-Sook, Lee Joo-Seok, Choi Woo-Hyeok, Kim Ji-Yeong, Kim Hae-Sook

It may not be fair to measure a remake against its predecessor -- it either works on its own or it doesn't -- but comparisons are inevitable, especially when there's already been an original novel, a 2004 feature film, and a subsequent J-drama adaptation. Clearly, this is an oft-told tale that has garnered varying amounts of success in each of its incarnations. So what do the Koreans have to add?
Those unfamiliar with Crying Out Love in the Center of the World's plot will no doubt still recognize a familiar formula at work in My Girl and I, a tale of young love with an oh-so-tragic end in sight. My Sassy Girl's Cha Tae-Hyun plays Su-Ho, a likable high school student, who finds himself the object of affection of Su-Eun, a beautiful classmate who, unbeknownst to him, saves him from drowning in the sea. The film is comical and cute in the early going, as the two youngsters fall for each other, utilizing pagers in order to keep in contact with one another when they're apart. Romance blooms when the two take a trip to an island, but just as happiness seems to be within their grasp, the first inklings of tragedy take hold of them, propelling the events of the film's heavier second half.
As far as melodramas go, My Girl and I is one of the better ones. Its characters are intensely likeable, its plotline is readily accessible, and its serious turn never feels cheap or overly manipulative. Still, this Korean revamp never really equals the emotional heft of its Japanese predecessor. As far as fidelity to its source is concerned, My Girl and I proves more or less faithful. While the grandfather's storyline is retained, certain subplots, motivations, and locations are excised in favor of a more straightforward storyline. Some scenes in the film appear nearly identical to the Japanese version in terms of shot selection and locations, while others are remarkably different and innovative. Whatever its predecessor's strengths may be, My Girl and I comes across as a less protracted affair, which in many ways works to the remake's benefit.
One thing the remake gets right is an added, suitably Korean sense of humor that it happily shows off during the film's winning first half. One example of the movie's funny bone comes with the addition of a younger sister for the film's hero, a woman who also happens to be on the lookout for romance and ends up in a love connection that is likely to get one of the biggest laughs in the film. The movie also succeeds in developing Su-Ho's circle of friends, making the initial stages of My Girl and I play like an amusing high school comedy, although more naturalistic than most "wacky" Korean jokefests. The emphasis on comedy extends to the leads as well, a move that not only endears the characters to the audience, but also makes the budding relationship feel all the more real. The two leads are "stars," but thankfully, they have ample chemistry so it never feels as if the only reason we're supposed to root for them is because the script says so.
Still, both actors are playing below their actual ages, which in many ways ruins the verisimilitude of the story. Still, the twenty-nine year old Cha Tae-Hyun does a fine job as the film's likable everyman protagonist, both as a youth and a grown man. While his character is an oddball of sorts, Cha turns out to be a far more accessible protagonist than Saku, the lead in Crying Out Love in the Center of the World. And in her debut film role, the gorgeous Song Hye-Kyo performs well, although she lacks the youthful exuberance of Masami Nagasawa from the original. Even worse, the film's undeniably Korean glossiness, while certainly attractive from a purely visual perspective, subtracts considerably from the serious issues at play in the film.
Perhaps in a misguided effort to be original, My Girl and I alters a crucial plot device used in the original film. Instead of exchanging tape recorded messages and sharing them via Walkmans, the conceit here is that the two are trading beeper messages. Although both convey the same practical purpose, the cassette tapes had added importance because the older Saku discovered them in the present day and listened to them, causing his past love to re-enter his life once more, which allowed the man's past and present to interact in beautifully complicated ways. Here, the journey of discovery lacks the immediacy and complexity of the Japanese original.
Still, the involving romance, the laugh-out loud humor, and the charming performances from its two leads are affecting enough to make My Girl and I a solid piece of commercial entertainment. It may well pale in comparison to Crying Out Love in the Center of the World in the gut-wrenching melodrama department, but when you compare it to some of the manipulative trash that comes out of Korea nowadays, this is one terminal illness tearjerker that's leaps and bounds above a number of its peers.

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