2011, colour, 2.35:1, 123 mins
Directed by Kang Hyung-chul (강형철)
By Derek Elley
Sun, 31 July 2011, 18:00 PM (HKT)
A joyous comedy-drama of female friendship, with excellent ensemble work and lots of retro nostalgia. Beyond Asia, largely specialist events and niche TV.
Seoul, the present day. Im Na-mi (Yu Ho-jeong), the model 40-something wife of a wealthy businessman (Baek Jong-hak) and mother of a moody, 17-year-old daughter, Ye-bin (Ha Seung-ri), is bored with her life. While visiting her mother (Kim Hye-ok) in hospital, Na-mi recognises a woman in a private room as her old high-school friend Ha Chun-hwa (Jin Hui-gyeong), now with terminal cancer. Chun-hwa says she'd like to track down, in the remaining couple of months she has left, the five other members of the high-school gang she once led nicknamed "Sunny". Na-mi enthusiastically agrees and, with her husband about to leave on an overseas business trip, has the time. After tracking down the third member of the gang, Kim Jang-mi (Goh Su-hui), now an insurance saleswoman, they hire a private detective (Lee Jun-hyeok) to find the others. Hwang Jin-hui (Hong Jin-hui), Seo Geum-ok (Lee Yeon-gyeong) and Ryu Bok-hui (Kim Seon-gyeong) all turn out to be very different, on the surface, from their high-school days, but the seventh member, Jeong Su-ji (Yun Jeong), seems impossible to trace. As the search goes on, and Chun-hwa's condition worsens, Na-mi's mind goes back to those days at Jindeok Girls' High Shool, Seoul, in 1986. She (Shim Eun-gyeong) was a shy, diabetic transfer student from the southern town of Beolgyo, South Jeolla province, whose elder brother Jong-gi (Park Yeong-seo) was an anti-government activist and whose bumpkin accent was laughed at by her Seoul classmates; but Chun-hwa (Gang So-ra) took Na-mi under her wing and protected her from bullying, finally proposing she should join the gang she led. Jang-mi (Kim Min-yeong) was a tubby teenager obsessed with getting double-eyelid surgery; Jin-hui (Park Jin-ju), Chun-hwa's deputy, was a spunky "Swear Queen"; Geum-ok (Nam Bo-ra), a goofy dentist's daughter; Bok-hui (Kim Bo-mi), a wannabe Miss Korea; and cool beauty Su-ji (Min Hyo-rin), a teenage model. Between fights with the rival Girls' Generation gang from Shinchang Girls' Vocational High, and bullying from glue-sniffing classmate Lee Sang-mi (Cheon Woo-hui), Na-mi developed an unrequited crush on handsome young Han Jun-ho (Kim Shi-hoo).
A joyous celebration of female lives and friendship, Sunny 써니 (2011) is the tops. Following his 2008 smash-hit debut, Scandal Makers 과속스캔들 (2008), writer-director KANG Hyung-chul 강형철 has achieved the near-impossible with a semi-sleeper success that has the same buckets of charm, droll humour and superb packaging but with a huge ensemble cast that doesn't have a single flaw. A near-perfect blend of laugh-out-loud and heart-warming moments, wrapped up in a story of seven classmates that yo-yos from the present back to high-school days 25 years ago, it combines many of the best elements of New Korean Cinema from a decade ago with a heavy slice of retro nostalgia summed up by the foot-tapping song of the title. (Yes, it's from the mid-'60s, but who cares.) Though the movie takes a considerable knowledge of South Korea's past history and the fruitier extremes of its language to be enjoyed in full, any viewer attuned to well-crafted mainstream entertainment can't fail to be seduced by its superb performances and joyous tone.
Kang's talent for waggish, mildly subversive comedy was already evident in Scandal Makers; but in Sunny he gets double the opportunities to display it by setting the movie in both the country's super-sleek, comfy urban present and its "innocent" past of the mid-'80s, during the final years of President Chun Doo-hwan's military dictatorship. Just as modern-day model housewife Na-mi rebels against her dry marriage and moody teenage daughter by re-discovering her circle of friends from her youth, so the teenagers in the '80s flashbacks rebel against the country's authoritarian society by scrapping, swearing, smoking and singing, forming bonds of friendship that temporarily go much deeper than any with family or boys. It's hardly an original or very deep theme: several South Korean period movies, such as Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Once Upon a Time in High School 말죽거리 잔혹사 (2003), have used high-school bullying and gang warfare as a metaphor for anti-government rebelliousness. Kang's twist is to tell it from an exclusively female perspective, without becoming oestrogen-soaked melodrama, and to draw parallels across 25 years.
The bane of movies that shuttlecock between present and past is that neither time-frame gets a chance to develop a dramatic head-of-steam. Kang solves that technically by ultra-smooth transitions — the first, done in a circular track, is especially clever — and avoidance of cliches like tinted colours. But the main reason for the film working as a single dramatic unit (in which the term "flashback" doesn't really apply) is the spot-on casting of the 14 actresses for the seven key characters, past and present. It's iniquitous to single out individuals in such an ensemble, but special praise is due to YU Ho-jeong 유호정 (nowadays in TV drama) as model housewife Na-mi and SHIM Eun-gyeong 심은경 as her feisty, bumpkin teenage self; JIN Hui-gyeong 진희경 (The Gingko Bed 은행나무 침대 (1996)) as the ever-optimistic Chun-hwa and the striking GANG So-ra 강소라 (from TV drama) as her fearless, gang-leading original; and HONG Jin-hui 홍진희 and PARK Jin-ju 박진주 as the modern and '80s versions of a mind-bendingly inventive gutter-mouth.
From the scattering of famous actors in photos to jokes about plastic surgery and mobile phones, the '80s sections are laden with period detail that's very filmy (and, in the case of a cinema showing Rocky IV, slightly inaccurate) but which echoes the exaggerated playing. Though the modern sequences don't drag — and provide a necessary emotional grounding for the relationships — some of the movie's most exhilarating moments are in these period sections: an anti-government riot that also becomes a battleground for the two girl-gangs, a face-off by the same gangs played like a spaghetti western, and a clever segue from present to past as the women start to rock to the sound of Sunny. On a quieter side, some of the humour recalls that of Scandal Makers, especially Na-mi's toe-curling embarrassment at being caught in her daughter's clothes, and the knockabout scenes in the private detective agency.
The only major fault of the movie is a tendency in the final half-hour to go from one apparent ending to another. With several darker areas still left unexplored — what, for example, is the true nature of Chun-hwa's liking for Na-mi? — and enough material for a whole mini-series, Kang's solutions to tying up the film are a tad episodic. But the real finale, set in the unlikeliest of places, still manages to be a joyful heartbreaker.
As the film broke the 7 million admissions mark in late July 2011, a Director's Cut was also released, running 10 minutes longer and with more modern-day scenes.
For the record, Kang Hyung-chul's Sunny has no connection with Sunny 님은 먼곳에 (2008), directed by LEE Joon-ik 이준익 | 李濬益 and starring actress SU Ae 수애, about a wife searching for her husband during the Vietnam War.
ContactSales: CJ E&M, Seoul (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: South Korea, 4 May 2011 (original version); 28 Jul 2011 (director's cut).
Presented by CJ E&M Pictures (SK). Produced by Toilet Pictures (SK), Aloha Pictures (SK). Executive producer: Katharine Kim. Producers: Ahn Byeong-gi, Ahn In-gi.
Script: Kang Hyung-chul. Adaptation: Lee Byeong-heon. Photography: Lee Hyeong-deok. Editing: Nam Na-yeong. Music: Kim Jun-seok. Production design: Lee Yo-han. Costume design: Chae Gyeong-hwa. Sound: Jeong Jin-wook. Action: Yang Gil-yeong. Special effects: Yun Hwang-jin, Lee Jeong-min.
Cast: Yu Ho-jeong (Im Na-mi), Shim Eun-gyeong (young Na-mi), Jin Hui-gyeong (Ha Chun-hwa), Gang So-ra (young Chun-hwa), Goh Su-hui (Kim Jang-mi), Kim Min-yeong (young Jang-mi), Hong Jin-hui (Hwang Jin-hui), Park Jin-ju (young Jin-hui), Lee Yeon-gyeong (Seo Geum-ok), Nam Bo-ra (young Geum-ok), Kim Seon-gyeong (Ryu Bok-hui), Kim Bo-mi (young Bok-hui), Yun Jeong (Jeong Su-ji), Min Hyo-rin (young Su-ji), Kim Shi-hoo (young Han Jun-ho; adult Jun-ho's son), Kim Yeong-ok (Na-mi's grandmother), Jeong Won-jung (Im Chang-gi, Na-mi's father), Kim Hye-ok (Kim Sun-im, Na-mi's mother), Park Yeong-seo (Im Jong-gi, Na-mi's brother in past), Cheon Woo-hui (Lee Sang-mi, Na-mi's classmate bully), Ha Seung-ri (Ye-bin, Na-mi's daughter), Kim Shin-ah (Girls' Generation gang leader), So Hui-jeong (Su-mi, class teacher), Kim Won-hae (managing teacher), Park Hui-jeong (Yeong-jin), Ryu Hye-rin, Choi Hye-seon, Lee Su-im, Kim Tae-rim, Park Bo-yeong, Yun Su-jin (Girls' Generation gang members), Lee Jun-hyeok (private detective), Goh Nam-hui (his assistant), Han Seung-hyeon (Jang-mi's brother), Kim Ji-gyeong (Jin-hui's husband), Lee Rim (widows' community head), Gang Ji-won (Su-ji's stepmother, in past), Gweon Eun-su (DJ Kim, in past), Ju Myeong-cheol, Hwang Chun-ha (detectives, in past), Choi Yeong-ho, Lee Seung-heon, Lee Dong-hyeon (Jun-ho's friends), Choi Ban-ah, Bae Su-gyeong, Kim Ye-jin, Kim Min-yeong, Yun Na-ya (high-school girl-gang members), Goh Han-bit, Eom Hye-su, Hong Se-na (Sang-mi's gang members), Park Hyeok-min (waiter at Young Star music bar, in past), Kim Do-yeop (Young Star DJ), Kim Seon-ju (music-hall employee, in present), Gweon Woo-ram (actor in TV drama), Ju Eun (actress in TV drama), Ahn Jang-hun (judge), Jiwan Kumar (Hassan), Kim Min-seo (Geum-ok's niece), Seong Ji-roo (Chun-hwa's lawyer), Gang Rae-yeon (Jong-gi's girlfriend), Ju Ho (insurance company manager), Kim Jun-ho (detective, in present), Lee Gyeong-yeong (adult Jun-ho), Baek Jong-hak (Na-mi's husband), Jeong Seok-yong (Na-mi's brother Jong-gi, in present), Lee Jong-hwan (voice of radio DJ, in past), Yang Hui-gyeong (Jang-mi's mother, in past), Park Ji-hyeon, Choi Hyeong-tae (hospital nurses), Lee Seung-hun (Bong, Na-mi's driver).