Being one of the more tired genres to litter the multiplexes, every so often romantic comedies need a little boost to remind us that they can be worthwhile. Out of all of the national industries that regularly churn them out, this seems to happen the most often in Korean cinema. Many western film viewers were introduced to the country's cinematic output through the contemporary classic My Sassy Girl (2001), which launched the careers of both Jeon Ji-hyun (The Thieves) and Cha Tae-hyun (Speedy Scandal, 2008).
Though the industry makes a great number of intensely formulaic and forgettable romcoms, that hasn't stopped gems like Penny Pinchers (2011), Love Fiction and All About My Wife from appearing in recent years. The first few months of 2013 have also yielded a new film to its place among them, the exuberant How to Use Guys with Secret Tips. The name does little to inspire confidence, but this small film has had people in the industry buzzing about a new style of romantic comedy.
A young woman has been toiling away as a 2nd assistant AD on commercials for five years. Bitter about the industry's unfair treatment of woman, excessive work hours have turned her into little more than an irate walking hoodie. One day, following a particularly grueling shoot, she comes across a beachside salesman of self-help books. Against her better judgment she finds herself purchasing a set of 'How to Use Guys with Secret Tips' for a tidy sum. She scoffs as she plays the old videotapes but is soon surprised to see people around her treating her differently, not least of which a condescending big star who had previously ignored her.
Let's get one thing straight, How to Use Guys does not reinvent the genre. It is a formulaic film, full of self-centered people, that dishes out dubious advice on relationships. However, unlike the vast majority of local romantic comedies, it has a unique, vibrant and endlessly creative aesthetic. Many Korean romcoms are well shot, beautifully lit and very fluid, but they often struggle to move beyond the 'sameness' afforded by their clean mise-en-scene. Though different in many ways, if I were to pick one film that resembles this the most, it would have to be the US indie (500) Days of Summer, a terrifically rare example of a good American romcom.
Director Lee Won-suk, here helming his debut, demonstrates his keen sense of style. Full of colors, energy and charm, his film entertains in the best possible way. One scene in particular stood out for me. The cocky male lead must make a speedy exit from an apartment, leaving his clothes behind. Naked behind the wheel of his SUV, his face drops as he sees a police control up ahead. The scene in his car is a very simple, and almost juvenile, gag, but with some evocative opera on the soundtrack and the use of a little slow motion, what should have been a lame joke suddenly becomes hilarious. It's clever tricks like these that breathe life into the well-worn confines of the romcom realm.
Speaking of opera, one of the film's great strengths is its excellent soundtrack, which runs the gamut of indie music, pop and club beats, not to mention Ravel. Cho's keen sense for matching a certain track with a scene reminds me of auteurs such as Tarantino, Scorsese, Winding Refn and more. It's not something you see very often in Korean cinema.
At almost two hours, the film does feel a little long. However the pacing is strong and most of the scenes are a breeze; the only real blunder comes during the obligatory rift between the leads that presents itself at the end of the second act. It's melodramatic and a bit clunky and as such not in keeping with the rest of the film. Ironically, while the rest of the narrative gleefully revels in its intensely stylized (and fake) world, this moment, which seeks to mine 'real' melodramatic emotions, comes off as the least genuine.
Predictably, the climax reeks of formula, but all the goodwill built up throughout as well as the film's winning cast still manage to push it over the finish line in triumphant style.
Sadly, How to Use Guys failed to find an audience in Korea. Truth be told, its box office performance was something of a disaster, though I can't imagine this had anything to do with negative word of mouth. Rather I think the film was woefully let down by a very poor marketing campaign, just take a look at the poster, which does nothing to sell the film and frankly doesn't reflect it whatsoever. I hope to see more of these in future but its poor returns will likely do little to inspire the confidence of studio bigwigs.