A slick fusion of now staple Korean genres (cute-but-wacky boy/girl romantic comedy, return to high school beatdown, goofy enemy-turned-buddy slapstick’er, teen fantasy), My Tutor Friend has some shaky moments but is held together by a suitably energetic plot (and out-of-the-ordinary subplots), charismatic performances and a warming, feel-good vibe that stays within its tolerable limits.
Kwon’s (Volcano High) Ji-hoon is an engaging rebel, supplying only a few doses of the overly violent behaviour that might alter our perceptions of him (he might slap a few innocents around, but it’s all pretty tame for a Korean high school film). He rides his token motorcycle, plays with his Zippo and cigarettes, and oozes that kind of carefree confidence oh so characteristic of the young, dangerous and upper middle class. (As a matter of fact, Ji-hoon fits neatly into archetypal categories identified by David Desser in what he terms pan-Asian youth films.) Kwon has already moved on to bigger roles (Once Upon a Time in High School) and there’s little doubt that he’s already an immensely popular and likeable new star.
Kim Ha-neul (Ditto) works harder to gain our attention, inhabiting Soo-wan with unique mannerisms and pulling off some difficult transitions (from defiantly assertive to scared witless). I liked what she was doing but find it difficult to explain why. Perhaps it’s because for all her exuberance, the feeling that she’s someone you could meet on campus really hits home. That’s something the more outrageous, and evidently more pleasurable, My Sassy Girl couldn’t quite manage (not that many of us would scoff at a chance meeting with Jeon Ji-hyun). Not every actress can make the ‘ugly duckling’ role work, but Kim manages to suspend our disbelief in the necessary plot mechanics and so yeah, of course you want her to land on her own two feet … so long as it’s in the vicinity of Ji-hoon.
Unexpected developments and an ever increasing sense that within their struggle, and against all logic and exchanges to the contrary, these two are really getting to know and fall for each other, carries us through some of the slimmer moments and provides much of the playful charm. However, this picture is driven by conflict so don’t expect any overt displays of affection. All kisses remain steadfastly offscreen, so far off that they’re probably in the seat next to you.
Not surprisingly, the story is never really scratched beyond the surface, but there is enough momentum, humour and situational variety to keep viewers hooked. Watch out for Soo-wan’s mother, who in a cryptic way seems to convey the film’s central metaphors — some kind of comment about what happens to people who act like chickens? She’s a scene stealer: maniacal, Korean mothers who force progress on their children (at the risk of death) definitely scare me in a more thoroughly complex way than similarly typed Korean fathers (who are all belt, buckle & bombast as far as I’m concerned).
I think you have to let this one take you where it wants you to go, but personally I found such submission delightful.