If you’ve seen your share of South Korean comedies in the last few years, you might be wondering if the industry has stopped making adult comedies altogether. With the likes of “Sex is Zero” and “Slave Love” seemingly dominating the marketplace, one might get the impression that the Korean movie industry no longer cares about making Romantic Comedies for adults. Thankfully Seok-beom Kang’s “Mr. Handy” (aka “Mr. Hong”) is here to set the record straight. Yes, Virginia, South Korea still produces RomComs for adults; and Yes, they really are better than the likes of “Slave” and “Zero” by a long shot.
“Mr. Handy” stars Jeong-hwa Eom (“Crazy Marriage”) as Hye-jin, a fiercely independent 30-year old dentist whose life changes when she hands in her resignation paper and, much to her surprise, it’s accepted. Now out of a job, Hye-jin finds that starting her own practice in a big city like Seoul is out of the question, as well as beyond her bank account. After a night of aimless driving, Hye-jin ends up in a small rural town that promises a new start — but more importantly, the rent space is cheap.
As she tries to acclimate to small-town life, Hye-jin comes into repeated contact with Du-shik, aka Mr. Hong (Ju-seok Kim). As the town’s unofficial “representative”, Hong’s duty includes every job that needs doing. In return, he receives a small pay, but as Hong tells another character, accepting money from the townspeople helps them to easier accept his help. It’s this symbiotic relationship between Hong and the town that Hye-jin just can’t understand, especially since Hong is always in her face, prodding her to become a better citizen and person.
Since “Mr. Handy” is a Romantic Comedy, Hong and Hye-jin falling in love is as inevitable as death and taxes. But thankfully co-writer/director Seok-beom Kang has seen plenty of RomComs himself, and apparently dislikes their predictability almost as much as this reviewer. As a result, not very much of “Mr. Handy”, besides the inevitable “falling in love” part, is predictable. After Hong and Hye-jin spends a (sexless) night together, Hye-jin begins to develop feelings for the man-with-no-prospects, who shockingly don’t seem especially interested in courting a dentist.
It’s that kind of unpredictability that makes “Mr. Handy” a pleasure to watch. It’s an entertaining movie from beginning to end, with a cast of likeable characters. Even Hye-jin’s friend Mi-sun (Ka-Yeong Kim), essentially the film’s Designated Comic Relief, doesn’t wear out her welcome. Later on, the film takes some liberties, giving anyone familiar with Korean films and Korea a helping of inside gags. “Shiri” makes a cameo, as well as a certain midget dictator of a certain northern country. Even George Bush Sr. shows up briefly. All of this, while obviously outrageous, is nevertheless hilarious.
While the film explores every facet of Hye-jin’s personality, Hong remains a mystery throughout much of the film. One of the film’s conceit is that Hong can do just about anything, from something as simple as filling in as a cashier, to something as artistic as playing guitar and singing, and even something as skilled as fixing electronics. When gangsters threaten Hye-jin’s burgeoning practice, Hong shows his physical prowess and wipes the streets with them. How did he become so proficient at these things? The movie never explains, and that’s part of its charm.
But if the film shortchanges us on its renaissance man, it more than makes up in laughs. “Mr. Handy” is a very funny film, with much of the comedy coming in the form of excellent performances by the two leads and out-of-the-blue situations such as Hye-jin getting groped in a grocery store, or getting back ended by a bad driver. The Hye-jin character is very well realized. She’s a woman who bucks the system at every corner, but is still vulnerable to her unwed status at age 30. Most of the time her personality gets her into trouble because she refuses to accept the status quo.
“Mr. Handy” is funny, affable, and visually impressive. The cinematography by Jun-yeong Jang (“Afrika”) is breathtaking, especially when the camera lingers on the ocean or at a delicate sunset. The beautiful Jeong-hwa Eom is a revelation, lighting up the screen with natural charisma and great comedic timing. Thankfully the film realizes it has a major talent on its hands, because the camera captures every smile and expressive look by Eom. Newcomer Ju-seok Kim, as Hye-jin’s persistent foil, succeeds in the role without ever resorting to silliness.
For anyone tired of the crop of raunchy teen comedies that have sprung out of Korea like a bad rash, “Mr. Handy” is a perfect change of pace. You won’t find a better, funnier, and more romantic comedy coming out of Korea at the moment.
Seok-beom Kang (director) / Seok-beom Kang, Jeong-gu Shin (screenplay)
CAST: Ju-seok Kim …. Hong Du-shik
Jeong-hwa Eom …. Yun Hye-jin
Ka-Yeon Kim …. Mi-sun