No matter how big movie stars are, they all had to start somewhere and pay their dues. Harrison Ford ("What Lies Beneath") got his start with an uncredited appearance as a bellboy in the 1966 crime-drama "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round", Tom Hanks ("Catch Me If You Can") played a cross-dresser on the sitcom "Bosom Buddies", while Meg Ryan ("Kate & Leopold") spent a couple of years on the daytime soap opera "As The World Turns". In the case of Shim Eun-ha ("Tell Me Something"), who is considered to be one of the most beautiful actresses in South Korea today, her big break came in the same fashion that Julia Roberts ("Ocean's Eleven") and Jodie Foster ("Panic Room") made a name for themselves-- playing a 'hooker with a heart of gold' in the 1995 romance "My Old Sweetheart (Ajji appa)". And while the film is a bit rough around the edges, it still manages to be an affecting romantic melodrama that showcases the emerging talents of a then-unknown Shim.
Shim plays Nam Yu-ri, a nineteen-year old prostitute who gets arrested after shoplifting a miniskirt. Kwak Young-su (Choi Min-su, seen most recently in "Yesterday"), the cop who is put in charge of processing her, ends up feeling pity on her and releases the wayward girl without any charges. But because Yu-ri has nowhere to stay, Young-su invites the young woman to sleep on the floor of his apartment, while resisting her persistent offers to 'pay him back' for such generosity.
The next morning, Yu-ri leaves the apartment before Young-su wakes up, but it is not the last time he sees her. In fact, Yu-ri continues to pop into Young-su's life, and as expected, a romantic attraction develops between them. Pretty soon, Yu-ri moves into Young-su's apartment, and goes back to school in a bid to get her life back on track. Unfortunately, elements of their respective lives threaten to derail the fragile relationship, including a crime kingpin (Shin Seong-il) who still considers Yu-ri to be his property, Yu-ri's estranged father who wants his daughter to resume her studies in the United States, and the unwanted amorous attention Young-su receives from a fellow female officer.
Fans of the technically polished Korean films of late might experience a bit of culture shock when they first start watching "My Old Sweetheart". The film's opening scene, in which Young-su is in the middle of an undercover bust, looks as though it had been spliced from a Seventies Shaw Brothers production. The directorial style employed by Shin Seung-soo (whose most recent film would be 2002's "A.F.R.I.K.A.") is reminiscent of the quick zoom-ins and fast pans employed by veteran Hong Kong 'old school' director Chang Cheh (which were parodied in "Kung Pow: Enter the Fist"). It also doesn't help that the film's occasional fight sequences seem to have borrowed liberally from the Hong Kong action film sound effects library, where even water splashing on someone's face sounds bone-crunching. And because the majority of the film takes place in the late 1980s, there are a number of jarring cultural cues that may seem tacky to some viewers, such as ladies with big hair and an MTV-style interlude with a character dancing to a Michael Jackson song.
However, if you are able to look past the film's grating style, then "My Old Sweetheart" is not a bad little film, which actually gets better as it unspools. Like other entries in Korean melodrama, the two romantic leads live in different and incompatible worlds-- Yu-ri is a prostitute unable to extricate herself from her underworld ties, while Young-su is a dedicated cop with a penchant for violence. And though the artwork on the film's most recent Hong Kong DVD and VCD release implies that the film is a bubbly romantic comedy in the spirit of "Pretty Woman", as the film moves into its second-half, the proceedings become increasingly tragic, with Young-su making some tough sacrifices to secure Yu-ri a fresh start.
For her first film role, Shim is absolutely radiant as Yu-ri, whose perky and carefree exterior barely hides her troubled psyche and boundless compassion. Unlike the mature and staid Shim seen in films such as "Christmas in August (Palwol ui Christmas)" and "Tell Me Something", Shim is quite vivacious in "My Old Sweetheart", and she sports a number of smashing outfits throughout the course of the film. However, Shim also demonstrates some considerable dramatic range, particularly in the film's heartbreaking coda, which she handles with the assuredness of a veteran. As her counterpart, Choi is charismatic as Yu-ri's newfound guardian who, despite his street-hardened exterior, is still at a loss when it comes to revealing his inner feelings to Yu-ri.
Spurred in part by Shim Eun-ha's popularity in recent years, Hong Kong's Winson Entertainment has re-released "My Old Sweetheart" on DVD and VCD. And while the film definitely shows its age, it is still worth a look on the basis of seeing a pre-"Christmas in August" Shim who, even back then, demonstrated the charisma, acting skill, and star quality that have made her one of South Korea's top actresses.
This movie is available for purchase from DVDAsian.com