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Friday, Sept. 29, 2006

Safe in a world of her own

A South Korean film in which nothing happens -- at this point in cinema history, that sounds like the ultimate contradictory statement. Show me a Korean film and I'll show you gut-wrenching, tear-duct busting melodrama peppered by blood, sweat, sex and the occasional fit of uncontrollable giggling. Most Korean filmmakers seem interested in one audience reaction only: adrenaline gush. Compared to all that, "This Charming Girl" is from another planet. The centerpiece is Jeong Hae (played by veteran Korean TV star Kim Ji Su), a 29-year-old single woman who works in a small post office. Her life is made up of this job, the occasional beer-over-dinner with her colleagues and naps in front of the TV, which is always droning quietly away whenever she is home. There's nothing else.

This Charming Girl Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Kim Ji Su (left) and Hwang Jeong Min in "This Charming Girl" (c)2005 LJFILM SHOWBOX

Director: Lee Yoon Ki
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Korean
Opens Oct. 7, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Writer/director Lee Yoon Ki made this film documentary-style, or rather, he thrusts a hand-held camera right in Kim's face, to the extent that we see the pores in her skin and a tiny abrasion on one cheek. And pretty soon, we come to share the director's fascination with the little daily rituals of this woman, who is so shy she can't go into crowded stores and does most of her shopping online or over the phone. Shoes are a problem, for they require her to try them on first, and consequently she wears the same battered pair day after day, though the rest of her attire is clean and smart, if not exactly trendy.

She also has trouble facing new people, and so will eat the same lunch fare at the exact same restaurant, even though her coworkers suggest a change, any change. It's hard to believe this slim Korean beauty could be such a recluse; subsequent flashbacks reveal that she had once been married, but had run out on her husband during their honeymoon. A therapist would have a name for her condition, but Jeong Hae seems just fine with her life -- in fact, she gives the impression that she's content that her own little world remains locked in noneventfulness.

As you watch, it's clear that as far as "This Charming Girl" is concerned, the absence of drama is exactly what makes this story so dramatic. At first glance, nothing seems to disturb Jeong Hae's impenetrable calm (she's not even ruffled when her ex-husband shows up and tells her over fast-food burgers that he's getting married again), but, on occasion, some of the emotion she usually keeps so deeply submerged surfaces to surprise her, like the slap of a carp fin making ripples in a pristine pond. When that happens she cringes with fear and mentally runs for cover, probably to some dark and secluded corner where she huddles with her eyes screwed tight and hands over her ears. Jeong Hae gives that impression: of having survived some past traumatic incident, and now focusing on getting through each day as safely as possible.

Then a stray kitten enters her life and Jeong Hae takes the big step of bringing a living creature home. She and the kitten are wary of each other, but when they do connect, the shock of contact recalls her late mother -- who was the last living and breathing entity she had bonded with. Jeong Hae is touched by this, and, at the same time, she doesn't want to deal with the sudden and unforeseen rush of emotion that threatens to lead places she just doesn't want to go.

Kim's performance is a masterful balance of understatedness and open-wounded vulnerability; her feelings are never spoken, but shown through subtle changes in facial expression and a certain tremulousness in her eyes. That she could do all this and remain devoid of mawkishness attests to her amazing skill in front of the camera, and Lee deploys this to full advantage, hardly ever letting the lens stray from the canvas of her face.

Jeong Hae deals with life and its traumas in a different way from what we've come to expect from movie heroines -- especially from feisty and passionate South Korean heroines. But she has made a choice, and it's as if the director, somewhat paternally, is patiently waiting to see what she will do next. Jeong Hae takes her time and acts only when she feels it's the right time. There's a serene determination in her face that somehow empowers the whole audience; she never tries to charm men or the world but in the end that's exactly what she does.

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