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With the playing field becoming more crowded seemingly by the day, it’s getting pretty hard for Korean romantic comedies to stand out or offer something new. Thankfully, unlike many directors happy to play things safe, for his directorial debut “How to Use Guys with Secret Tips”, Lee Won Suk has tried to shake things up a little bit by offering a different perspective on modern relationships and mixing wacky cuteness with a sharp script. Though the film didn’t set the box office in Korea alight, it proved very popular at overseas festivals, including winning the Audience Award at the Udine Far East Festival in Italy, and has now been picked up for distribution in the UK by Third Window.
Actress Lee Si Young (“Meet the In-Laws”) headlines as Bo Na, an assistant commercials director whose career at a production company is going nowhere, much like her love life, finding it hard to make her way in a society run by men. One day after falling asleep on the beach during a shoot and waking up in the middle of the night, she meets the mysterious Dr. Swarski (Park Young Gyu, “I am the King”), who sells her a set of self-help tapes called ‘How to Use Guys with Secret Tips’. Although initially dubious, Bo Na starts watching the tapes and finds her life transformed, managing to get her male colleagues to do her bidding and even getting handsome though conceited soap actor Lee Seung Jae (Oh Jung Se, “Quick”) to fall for her. Inevitably, her sudden success brings with it complications, and she starts to question her new personality and sneaky methods.
“How to Use Guys with Secret Tips” is one of those films which just really clicks, all of its various elements gelling together into an incredibly entertaining whole. Director Lee Won Suk does a great job of working within the usual romantic comedy formula while at the same time playfully subverting it and making it feel original – no mean feat given the utter lack of invention often seen in the genre. While the plot itself is ultimately straightforward, the film shows genuine insight into the dating game, and though it doesn’t dig too deeply it successfully manages to comment on the chauvinistic nature of the male-run Korean society. Thankfully, despite this, the film never becomes too hung up on the same old battle of the sexes theme, and though all the male characters are bumbling, vain idiots there’s plenty to enjoy here for viewers of either gender, making it one of the rare example of its type to have real universal appeal.
This aside, the film’s main strength is the simple fact that it’s very, very funny, with an intelligent script and some great gags. Though the framing device of the self-help tapes doesn’t actually add much to the narrative it does make for some quirky scenes and amusing moments, Park Young Gyu hilarious as the showman-like Dr. Swarski, popping up to offer odd nuggets of advice and encouragement. The film’s pacing and comic timing are impeccable, and though reasonably cynical it has a boisterous, uplifting air that carries it throughout, partly thanks to a very likeable turn from Lee Si Young in the lead, making Bo Na sympathetic despite her many, many flaws. While the film is arguably first and foremost a comedy, it shows surprisingly effective character development, and though predictable, her gradual transformation from cutesy frump to confident career woman and lover is rewarding and satisfying to watch. As a result, the romance also rings true, if to a lesser degree, Bo Na’s on-off relationship with the foolish Lee Seung Jae benefitting from a dash of realism. Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, things do get a bit sappy towards the end, though by this stage the film has won just about enough good will to this slide, and Lee Won Suk at least never tugs too hard on the heartstrings.
Lee’s style fits the material perfectly, giving the film a perky feel and throwing in a great deal of liveliness. Backed by a bouncy indie pop soundtrack, the film is visually very creative, with lots of animation and manga style inserts, and wacky flights of fantasy during the self-help sequences and Bo Na’s day dreams. Wisely, Lee doesn’t go too over the top, and the film comes across as a more romantically inclined Miki Satoshi outing, showing a similar level of eccentricity and straight faced silliness.
“How to Use Guys with Secret Tips” really is a lot of fun, and is one of the most distinctive and entertaining romantic comedies from Korea of late. Lee Won Suk accomplishes the not inconsiderable feat of making the form feel fresh again, and the film stands as a bright and breezy debut that should be enjoyed by even the most jaded of genre fans.
Wonsuk Lee (director) / Wonsuk Lee, Hye-yeong No, Ha Soo-jin (screenplay)
CAST: Si-Young Lee … Choi Bo-na
Jeong-se Oh … Lee Seung-jae
Yong-Joon Ahn … Seong-jae
Yeong-gyu Park … Dr. Swalski