“Sunny” has been one of the biggest hits of the year in Korea, perhaps somewhat surprising given that it’s essentially a nostalgic comedy revolving around a middle aged woman reminiscing about her childhood. In the hands of writer director Kang Hyung Chul (“Speedy Scandal”), this fairly unremarkable premise is transformed into something truly special, and the film is easily one of the best and most life-affirming of 2011, as reflected in the fact that it pulled in over seven million admissions at the domestic box office. A critical as well as commercial success, the film also brought home Best Director at the Daejong Film Awards, and recently played the London Korean Film Festival, where it was similarly well received.
Television actress Yoo Ho Jung plays straight-laced forty something housewife Na Mi who runs into high school friend Chun Hwa (Jin Hee Kyung, “Married to the Mafia”) after having not seen her for many years, only to learn that she is dying of cancer. The two get to talking, remembering their school days some 25 years back, when Na Mi (Shim Eun Kyung, “Romantic Heaven”) had just moved to Seoul from the countryside and Chun Hwa (Kang So Ra, “4th Period Mystery”) was the tough leader of a clique of rebellious girls that called themselves ‘Sunny’, including creative curser Jin Hee (Park Jin Joo), the overweight but cheerful Jang Mi (Kim MinYoung), enthusiastic bookworm Geum Ok (Nam Bo Ra), would-be Miss Korea (Kim Bo Mi), and the beautiful but distant Su Ji (Min Hyo Rin, “Romance Town”). As Na Mi in the present days tries to track down the other members of the crew, memories of friendship, crushes and fights with a rival girl gang come flooding back.
“Sunny” is an absolute joy from start to finish, due in no small part to Kang Hyung Chul’s skill as both writer and director, as he transforms what could have been merely a chick-flick nostalgia piece into something wonderfully upbeat and universal. The real key to this lies in the fact that his script is perfectly balanced, knowing exactly when to be funny and when to be serious, avoiding the usual kind of sudden dives into cheap melodrama that so often blight such films. The film has many hilarious moments and great comic set pieces, with nicely timed slapstick and wackiness along with some amazingly inventive use of swearwords, which even non-Korean speakers should get a real kick out of thanks to some hilarious subtitling. The various fight scenes and brawls are similarly very entertaining, and the film boasts several of the funniest laugh out loud moments of recent Korean cinema, all of which help to keep things moving along at a fast and bouncy pace, both in the theatrical version and the 15 minute longer Director’s Cut.
Kang combines this with a wholly convincing period backdrop, managing to work in the political turbulence of the democracy riots without ever getting too obvious or heavy handed – one of the film’s best sequences sees the Sunny girls taking on their rivals in a drawn out battle while police clash with protestors in their midst. The 1980s are also recreated through colourful fashion and a plentiful collection of instantly recognisable pop songs that make for an excellent and fun soundtrack. Kang’s direction shows a fittingly light touch throughout, though at the same time a strong visual sense, and the film is very well made on a technical level, with some clever editing and neatly constructed shots. Crucially, this goes some way to achieving an air of believability, allowing the viewer to relate to the story and ensuring that the film is never anything less than engaging.
Although cute and irreverent, the film has real heart and for all its silliness is clearly a character driven piece, all of the girls being well written and likeable, depicted as enthusiastic and sympathetic despite their many flaws and frequently troublesome behaviour. The cast are all on great form, in particular Shim Eun Kyung, who is charismatic and amusing as the energetic and clumsily young Na Mi. Kang does a great job of exploring themes of friendship and of growing up, with the various relationships between the girls and the other people in their lives all ringing true. The scenes in the present are inevitably more serious, though no less interesting or entertaining, and the way that they play upon the gap between the dreams and hopes of youth and the adult pain of real life are powerful and often harsh, highlighting the sad fact that life often doesn’t work out as planned. The film switches between the past and present with near seamless flow, so much so that the scenes in the 1980s never even register as flashbacks, Kang showing real flair and charm as a storyteller.
“Sunny” really doesn’t put much of a foot wrong, and is wholly deserving of its success, being one of the few Korean films to truly nail the difficult combination of laughter and bittersweet melodrama. With an appealing young cast, a well-chosen soundtrack and a highly accomplished script and direction from Kang Hyung Chul, the film is two hours of pure enjoyment, whether the viewer has any experience as a schoolgirl growing up in 80s Korea or not.
Hyeong-Cheol Kang (director) / Hyeong-Cheol Kang (screenplay)
CAST: Ho-jeong Yu … Na-mi
Sim Eun-Kyeong … Young Na-mi
Hee-kyung Jin … Choon-hwa
Min-yeong Kim … Young Jang-mi
Su-hee Go … Jang-mi
Kang So-ra … Young Choon-hwa