One of the biggest hits of 2003, with admissions almost rivaling 2002's box office chart topper "Marrying the Mafia (Gamuneui Yeonggwang)", "My Tutor Friend (Donggabnaegi gwawoehagi)" (aka "Tutoring a Friend") is a romantic comedy about the sparks that fly (from both passion and friction) when a geeky college girl is hired to help a spoiled rich kid get his grades up. And though it may run a little on the long side, the well-rounded blend of broad comedy, romance, slickly shot martial arts sequences, and two great lead performances make "My Tutor Friend" a worthwhile effort.
The titular tutor is Choi Su-weon (Kim Ha-neul), a homely 21-year old English major who gives private lessons to high schoolers to cover her college tuition. Unfortunately, it is not the easiest way to earn a living. She quits her most recent teaching job after being sexually harassed by a couple of twelve-year olds, and reluctantly accepts an offer to tutor a high school student, a referral from one of her mother's rich friends. And as alluded to by the film's Korean title, Su-weon's new charge, Kim Ji-hun (Kwong Sang-woo), is the same age as her, having failed the same grade twice.
As in any romantic comedy, Su-weon and Ji-hun are like oil and water at first. Ji-hun is a spoiled brat who has been brought back to Korea by his stern dad (Baek Il-sub) after screwing up while studying overseas. Unfortunately, it seems the experience has not changed his outlook, as he would rather sneak out and hang around with his airhead girlfriend Ho-kyung (Kim Gi-woo) than hit the books with Su-weon. Furthermore, because she is the same age, Ji-hun shows little respect for his tutor by not showing up for lessons or insultingly referring to her as 'country chick'. But as determined as Ji-hun is to send away his unwanted tutor, Su-weon is equally unwavering in her attempts to break through his pigheadedness.
Unfortunately, Ji-hun has more than just lackluster grades to worry about. The 'king' of his high school, Jong-su (Gong Yoo), is determined to put the post-matriculant student in his place for stealing the affections of Ho-kyung, though he is unable to match Ji-hun's prowess in martial arts. Meanwhile, Su-weon finds herself targeted by a jealous Ho-kyung, who sics her bitchy clique on her.
Like the romantic comedy that it has often been compared to, "My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo)", "My Tutor Friend" is based on a series of stories that were posted on-line by a real-life English literature major named Choi Su-weon during the summer of 2000. After attracting a large number of eyeballs on-line, the stories jumped onto the printed page as a monthly comic series and were eventually picked up by first-time writer/director Kim Gyeong-hyeong, who fashioned a feature-film script out of them.
For those who have seen films such as "She's All That", "A Walk to Remember", "Educating Rita", as well as the Korean high-school comedy "No Manners (Pumhaeng zero)", what transpires during the two-hour running time of "My Tutor Friend" should be of no surprise. Fortunately, director Kim keeps things interesting from both a narrative and visual standpoint. The love-hate relationship between Su-weon and Ji-hun (along with the expected cat-and-mouse banter) is rife with some great zingers as the would-be high-school dropout tests the resolve of his tutor. Ji-hun's misadventures at high school, resulting from run-ins with Jong-su, are also a highlight, and serve as a good excuse for the film's eye-popping effects-heavy martial arts sequences. In addition, Kim spruces up the banter between the leads with some on-screen graphics, calling to mind Song Neung-han's "No. 3" and Jeong Jae-eun's "Take Care of My Cat (Goyangireul buiakhae)".
Unfortunately, the film runs into some trouble during the second-half, which feels longer and more forced than what preceded it. It is here that the story goes into overdrive, as tutor and student begin to fall in love with one another as they literally race against the clock to get Ji-hun's marks up. Meanwhile, as if Kim suddenly remembered what he learned in 'Screenwriting 101', another romantic interest for Su-weon is abruptly brought into the fold to compete for Ji-hun's affections. However, despite such an aberration, the film manages to recover with an action- and humor-packed climax, as well as a satisfying coda.
And while the storytelling and visual flourishes more-or-less stand up well on their own, "My Tutor Friend" works because of its two charismatic leads. Kim Ha-neul is almost unrecognizable from her turn in "Ditto (Donggam)", with her rather unglamorous portrayal of 'country chick' Su-weon, who is clearly intimidated by her new charge, yet is determined to see the job to the end-- a more down-to-earth 'sassy girl', if you will. Playing her opposite, Kwong Sang-woo is no stranger to CGI-enhanced martial arts mayhem, having played the top student at "Volcano High (Whasango)". In "My Tutor Friend", Kwong is fun to watch as the brash and ill-mannered Ji-hun who gradually becomes bored to tears by his vacuous high school friends and finds himself warming up to his tutor as maturity takes hold.
Overall, "My Tutor Friend" seems to be 2003's heir apparent to "My Sassy Girl". It is also the leader of the pack when it comes to the recent wave of high-school focused comedies that have inundated Korean moviegoers since 2002, such as "No Manners", "Bet on My Disco (Hae-jeok, discowang doeda)", and "Wet Dreams (Mongjeonggi)". With two great characters backed by likeable leads, great humor, and plenty of terrific eye candy, this romantic comedy earned a rightful place at the top of South Korea's box office. Get yourself educated with "My Tutor Friend".
This movie is available for order from DVDAsian.com