Updated: Jul 2, 2021
For a movie made 20 years ago, "My Sassy Girl" still manages to amuse in an incredibly fresh way... if you can accept that it was a product of its time.
Based on a web novel by Kim Ho-sik, My Sassy Girl was a huge hit in Korea and an even bigger hit across Asia, spawning millions of bootlegged copies (remember kids, this was 2001) and driving DVD sales up to this day. But what's even more remarkable is that this film spawned four adaptations: three of which were released in 2008: an 11-episode Japanese TV version (Ryokiteki na Kanojo), an American remake starring Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford, and even a Bollywood version (Ugly Aur Pagli, bluntly translated as "ugly and crazy") complete with the requisite song-and-dance routines.
But sadly, despite attempts to tweak the material and appeal to their own audiences, all of these adaptations bombed. So this begs the question: Why -- even after 20 years -- does the original Korean version reign supreme?
It's something people hadn't really seen before 2001: Boy meets drunk, obnoxious Girl, boy gets into a million troubles because of The Girl, but incredibly, Boy still falls for The Girl. Interestingly enough, The Girl (Jun Ji-hyun) isn't even given a name in the movie. In one of the movie's distinctive features, the main girl is forever just referred to as The Girl, and the one whom Gyeon-u (adorably played by Cha Tae-hyun) repeatedly loses his sanity over.
But My Sassy Girl is not just all laughs and screwball antics-----it also mixes heavy moments that deal with grief, pain, and even suicide. While the film is one long madcap adventure of the pair getting involved in a number of groan-inducing and embarrassing situations, it still ends with the inevitable rom-com conclusion: that no matter how crazy life----or someone----can get, love will always find a way.
It is easy for a first-time viewer these days to dismiss My Sassy Girl as a tale of a horrible woman beating up a timid guy for the LOLs. Admittedly (and thankfully), times have changed, so while our adoring 2001 Gyeon-u thinks The Girl is sassy, the modern viewer may think she is simply sadistic. But to completely dismiss this movie and its contributions to the genre on the basis of this reduction would be an unfair assessment of one of the biggest----and sassiest----Asian rom-coms of all time.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it still must be said: My Sassy Girl isn't an American movie, and never tries to be. It is, and remains, a distinctly Korean comedy made with obvious Korean elements, targeted for Korean audiences. So while some audiences would see The Girl's drinking as reckless "alcoholism" and their romance as "exploitative," we must also remain cognizant of the fact that to its original audience, it may have just been a story about a girl who went on a drinking spree (a non-issue in Korean society), and had difficulty surviving a personal loss. Culture is a big factor here, and while many things simply do not or cannot translate well across cultures (critics call this phenomenon as "cultural odor"), it does not mean a film is any less important or notable than those we find "palatable."
My Sassy Girl remains an iconic rom-com precisely because it refuses to remain as "just" a rom-com. First, like many Korean films, it is a sharp and careful combination of genres: It's a comedy, a tragedy, a melodrama, and even a genre parody all in one dark and hilarious package. There's love and friendship, but there's also loss and intense grief. Like the best of Korean cinema, it defies simplistic this-or-that thinking, and is able to make you laugh, cry, and die of embarrassment all at the same time.
Second, the movie is also a masterclass in contradiction: For all her "sassiness," is The Girl truly the stronger one? For all his perceived "weakness," why is Gyeon-u so needed? After all, the foundation of great comedy is reversal, and My Sassy Girl has reversals in spades: the masculine becomes quite feminine. The painful becomes funny. The private becomes embarrassingly public. The movie also clearly enjoys inverting gender roles and making fun of stereotypes, and unpacking all of that has been the subject of many a film major's thesis and other not-very-fun academic papers.
Finally, My Sassy Girl is regularly lauded by film critics (yes, proper film critics) for boldly reconstructing the modern rom-com as we know it. Telling a love story from the point of view of the male instead of a female (or even from her fantasies) flipped not only the genre, but also the gender assumptions of who can tell a love story, and in what way.
The well-crafted rom-com, like love, is simple in theory, yet still so incredibly difficult to pull off. And we have to admit, My Sassy Girl has not only pulled it off well, but has endured. It remains beloved by its legions of fans, not only because we all have a giant crush on Jun Ji-hyun, but also because it put together the basics----a unique, genre-defying plot with gifted actors who did not skimp on the chemistry----and succeeded spectacularly. Again, simple in theory, but difficult to pull off. Even more difficult to be remembered fondly 20 years hence.
Four times adapted (and a fifth one coming from the Philippines soon), yet still unmatched in success and fan loyalty, My Sassy Girl is still the sassy queen of the reconstructed rom-com, and not only deserves a watch, but many more re-watches. And every time we do, we're all better off following Gyeon-u's fourth Rule: "If she hits you, act like it hurts. If it hurts, act like it doesn't."
Also, we weren't kidding when we said there was a Bollywood version.
OG fans, cry with me.
Stream if: You're in the mood for some dark laughs, or if you just miss this crazy couple. Also, if that Piano Scene still makes you feel all the FEELINGSSSS. Admit it, this isn't your first time watching this comedic gem.
Skip if: Dark comedy isn't your thing.
Kuwahara, Y. (Ed.). (2014). The Korean wave: Korean popular culture in global context. Springer.
Chua, B. H., & Iwabuchi, K. (Eds.). (2008). East Asian pop culture: Analysing the Korean wave (Vol. 1). Hong Kong University Press.