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“Crush and Blush” is exactly the kind of film that the Korean film industry needs more of. A black, harsh though surprisingly moving anti-romantic comedy, it stands head and shoulders above the hordes of cutesy pieces of soulless candy which crowd cinema screens. The film marks the debut of Lee Kyung Mi who deservedly won Best New Director and Best Screenplay at the 29th Blue Dragon Awards, and was produced by none other than “Oldboy” director Park Chan Wook, who also makes a cameo appearance, along with “The Host” helmer Bong Joon Ho. However, the real star of the show is lead actress Kong Hyo Jin, who completely transformed herself from her recent and very different roles in “Dachimawa Lee” and Lee Myung See’s “M”, being crowned Best Actress at the 7th Korean Film Awards and the 11th Director’s Cut Awards for her considerable efforts.
Here she plays the film’s heroine Yang Mi Sook – although calling her a ‘heroine’ might initially at least seem like a bit of a stretch, since she is not the most obviously likeable of protagonists. An awkward, dowdy teacher with a bright red complexion and a foul temper, she spends most of her time complaining, arguing with people and obsessively stalking married male colleague Seo (Lee Jong Hyuk, also in “Radio Dayz” and “A Day for an Affair”), on whom she has had a creepy crush since she herself was his student. Her carefully balanced, though self-delusional existence is shaken when she discovers that Seo has been having an affair with her bitter rival Yuri (actress Hwangwoo Seul Hye, “Speedy Scandal”), the teacher who took over her much cherished Russian class. Teaming with Seo’s oddball daughter Jong Hee (Seo Woo), she schemes to ruin their illicit relationship, destroy his marriage and to claim him for herself.
As should be pretty obvious from this synopsis, “Crush and Blush” is about as far away from the traditional Korean romantic comedy as it as possible to get – and in the best possible way. Though as bitter, twisted and cynical as might be expected with such a protagonist, the film is not overtly cruel, with an eccentrically deadpan sense of humour that recalls the works of Western director Wes Anderson. The script is wonderfully intelligent and witty, relying on observations and idiosyncratic details for laughs rather than out and out gags or the usual slapstick, with most of the comedy being drawn from Yang Mi Sook’s increasingly underhand actions and tricks.
This having been said, it does mine some fairly adult and sexual themes for jokes, for example as she and Jong Hee steal her father’s mobile phone and online ID, and spend their evenings exchanging graphic IM conversations with poor Yuri in an effort to drive her away. The plot itself is complicated and unpredictable (not least since even Yang Mi Sook herself doesn’t seem to know what she wants) and takes a number of leftfield turns along the way, with Lee never taking the easy route or pandering to audience expectations. As such, it makes for utterly engaging viewing, right through to the entertaining and fittingly strange conclusion.
Despite her anti-social behaviour, Yang Mi Sook is not treated as an overt figure of fun, and thanks in no small part to an amazing performance by Kong Hyo Jin she gradually finds her way into the viewer’s heart. Indeed, it is hard not to feel somewhat sorry for her as a woman who has been ignored and despised all of her life, and whose outcast status seems to doom her to unhappiness. In a clever twist, it is her relationship with fellow loner Jong Hee that really drives the film and which brings the most emotional payoff. Although the friendship that develops between the two is at first based on a shared enmity, it gradually and hesitantly brings them both the kind of bond that they have been lacking. Their scenes together are both amusing and touching, with Lee never allowing for any melodrama or sudden plea for redemption, even towards the end – something for which the film deserves considerable kudos and praise.
As a result, “Crush and Blush” is a truly unique film, and easily the best Korean comedy or indeed character drama of recent years. Darkly amusing though deeply humanistic, and anchored by an actress at the top of her game, it makes for required viewing and deserves every success, proving as it does that breaking from given commercial cinematic formulas is something that far more filmmakers should devote themselves to.
Kyoung-mi Lee (director) / Kyoung-mi Lee, Chan-wook Park, Eun-kyo Park (screenplay)
CAST: Hyo-jin Kong … Yang Mi-sook
Eun-jin Bang … Seong Eun-gyo
Woo-seul-hye Hwang … Lee Yoo-ri
Jong-hyeok Lee … Seo Jong-cheol
Woo Seo … Seo Jong-hee