If the premise of “My Tutor Friend” sounds suspiciously like a recent South Korean box office success called “My Sassy Girl”, it’s no coincidence. Like all movie industry, the Koreans know that when you’ve struck gold, the only thing left to do is to mine it for all it’s worth. In this case, both “Tutor” and “Sassy” were originally serialized stories that appeared on the net, and both involves young people who come from different backgrounds. The characters clash, clash some more, and then inevitably fall in love. It seems to a working formula, so why tinker?
Ha-Neul Kim (“Ditto”) plays 21-year old college student Su-wan, who tutors English in her spare time to pay for college. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ji-hoon (Sang-woo Kwon), who despite also being 21, has failed high school twice and needs to past this time or face his father’s wrath. Su-wan is hired to tutor the incorrigible Ji-hoon, who makes every effort to spurn her attempts. Meanwhile, background characters Ho-kyung (Kim Ji-Woo) is out to get into Ji-hoon’s pants while Jong-su (Gong Yoo), Ho-kyung’s ex-boyfriend and the school’s resident tough guy, looks to retain his crown; but alas he keeps getting beaten up by Ji-hoon.
There is very little surprise in “Tutor”, if you were wondering. The film basically breaks down into a predictable sequence of events with the two main leads clashing and then eventually falling for one another. First-time director Kyeong-hyeong Kim must have realized he wasn’t doing anything groundbreaking, which may be why Ji-Hoon is not only rich and spoiled, but also an impressive fighter. Besides trashing Jong-su on a regular basis, Ji-hoon spends every other 10 minutes of the movie beating someone else up. Sang-woo Kwon (“Volcano High”) proves to be highly credible as a fighter, and the action scenes in this comedy are actually better than those in the serious teen gang movie “Beat”, if you can believe it.
The one notable difference between “Tutor” and “My Sassy Girl” is the reversal of roles. Whereas the male lead was a bit, shall we say, “off” in the latter movie, it’s the girl in “Tutor” that takes most of the abuse. Not only does Su-wan suffer at the hands of the indifferent Ji-hoon, but she also has to contend with jealous Ho-kyung and friends. After getting assaulted by the high school girls one night, Su-wan is next seen bruised and sharpening a butcher knife in the dark. Her mother appears and slaps her on the back of the head, but instead of asking why her daughter is sharpening a knife in the dark, tells the girl to “turn on the light, idiot”.
If you’re not expecting anything too overly original, “My Tutor Friend” will be one of the better entries in the Teen Romantic Comedy genre. It’s certainly on par with the recent crop of funny comedies to come out of South Korea in 2003 that mixes comedy with romance and spurts of action. Oh sure, it’s all very predictable, especially if you’re used to Korean films. There are the usual school bullies, gangsters, and even traditional authority in the face of modern youth attitudes. Then again, considering that so many people have used the same formula and done it only mildly successfully, “Tutor” rightfully deserves credit for doing it extremely well.
With a movie like this, the casting is probably the most important element. Leads Ha-Neul Kim and Sang-woo Kwon both do good work as the opposing forces of nature, especially Ha-Neul as the rumpled and plain Su-wan. As the handsome and vain Ji-hoon, Kwon has less to do, but still does what little he has to do exceptionally well. The two young people have good chemistry, and the verbal sparring between them is entertaining stuff. Although the film drags a bit in the second half, the actors’ winning personalities turn what could have been a speed bump into a minor irritation.
Even so, “My Tutor Friend” is about 20 minutes too long, making for a tepid second half. Of course this is only in relation to the explosive, funny, and oftentimes clever first half. I would have liked the film, credited to the real-life Su-wan Choi, to delve into more of the background characters. For instance, Su-wan’s mother seems to have a grudging friendship with Ji-hoon’s mother, but it’s never explained. Also, Baek Il-Sub plays Ji-hoon’s father, who either runs a business or is a local crimelord. Again, the film doesn’t offer any conclusive evidence either/or.
Although it’ll go into history as being compared most to “My Sassy Girl” (and rightfully so) I must admit to liking “My Tutor Friend” more than the other movie. The two main characters just come across as more genuine here. Plus, the melodrama isn’t so prodigious and overwhelming in “Tutor”. Another plus is that the film has some wild action to break the monotony of predictable romance. Also, the comedy is funnier here, relying more on witty dialogue than wacky gags. In any case, both films are exceptional Teen Comedies that could teach the Hollywood Teen Movie machine a thing or two about originality.
Kyeong-hyeong Kim (director) / Su-wan Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Ha-Neul Kim …. Choi Su-wan
Sang-woo Kwon …. Kim Ji-hoon