Na-mi (Yoo Ho-jeong) is a middle-aged housewife and mother who outwardly seems to have everything she could wish for, but increasingly she feels that something is missing from her life... she just doesn't know what. On visiting her mother in hospital, Na-mi is reacquainted with Chun-hwa (Jin Hee-kyung), a high school friend from many years earlier, who has been admitted with terminal cancer.
While they talk, Chun-hwa expresses her desire to see all the members of Sunny (a group Chun-hwa (played in her youth by Kang So-ra), Na-mi (Sim Eun-kyeong) and several other girls formed in their youth) one more time before she dies, and desperate to help, Na-mi enlists a private detective to find the other women and make Chun-hwa's dying wish come true.
As each of the former members are tracked down one by one, the story of their school days in Sunny gradually unfolds, along with what ultimately tore them apart...
While, on first glance, the story of the friendship of a group of female school friends detailed in parallel with their poignancy-laced present day lives in middle-age may lead you to think that Sunny is just another "chick flick with heart", not worthy of your time. However, if that's the case you'd be well advised to throw away your initial reservations and give this utter gem of a film a chance. For that chance is all that Sunny will need to tickle your funny bone, open your tear ducts and ultimately touch and uplift your heart, no matter whether you're man, woman, young or old - and that statement coming freely from someone (me) with a penchant for dark, bleak drama (almost to the point of obsession) should go some way towards underlining just how well Sunny does what it does.
Ok, so Sunny could never be described as deep but, frankly, it never tries to be - instead focusing its efforts on creating unique individual personalities traits and genuinely funny eccentricities for each of the main characters, especially in their youth. Those character traits also give a warmth to proceedings throughout, single-handedly increase viewer empathy and bring a freshness to what could so easily otherwise have been a predictable and clichéd storyline.
Like many of you, I was never a girl growing up in the 80's (did I really just say that?), but nonetheless Sunny repeatedly brought me feelings of nostalgia and memories of youth - thoughts of formative years when we all did our utmost to exude a confident, worldly-wise air, while, in reality, we were still learning about this thing called life and slowly discovering the people we had not yet fully become.
It almost goes without saying that a superb 80's inspired soundtrack increases the feelings of nostalgia yet further, and while this will no doubt be even truer for those who actually lived through the period, anyone watching its perfectly placed use within the ongoing narrative will get a taste of times gone by, whatever age he or she may be.
The humour in Sunny is wisely kept, for the most part, to scenes featuring the main characters in their youth: Routinely truly funny (almost to a laugh-out-loud level, in several instances) as well as, equally importantly, being genuinely unpredictable, these frequent moments - Na-mi’s repeated luminous blushing; her inability to refrain from violently shaking when she’s nervous; her sweet and frail grandmother’s incessant foul-mouthed cursing; and the incredible choreography of fight scenes featuring Geum-ok (Nam Bo-ra), the “bookworm with a stick”, for example - also serve to provide a balance and contrast to the poignancy of scenes of the main characters’ present-day lives, and deftly accent the dreams and optimism of youth being replaced with responsibilities, frustrations and unforeseen life-shattering events.
However, don’t be misled into thinking that this is just another funny film with a weepy, melodramatic ending tacked on, for though there is a genuine sadness in the latter scenes, is so gently and perfectly handled as to be every bit as uplifting as it is funny while repeatedly touching the heart. In fact, it has to be said that the sadder parts of the story are a great deal more moving as a result of the (obviously conscious) decision not to over-emphasize the melodramatic aspects inherent to them.
In short, Sunny takes a fairly familiar narrative arc and breathes life into it at every turn, ultimately reminding us that, regardless of our age, the optimism and love of life felt in youth is never lost, just sometimes misplaced.
While some of the social and cultural (including pop culture) references within Sunny are specifically Korean or, at the very least, more Asian than Western (for example: The rival group of girls being called Girls' Generation; references to, and scenes set in the midst of, the Gwang-ju uprising; and even joking mention of spirit possession, prevalent in a plethora of Asian horror films), for the large part they are fairly easily understood and even though some have rather serious underlying subjects, either politically or within the context of society - such as a fight scene between Sunny and Girls' Generation during the aforementioned Gwang-ju related riots - director Kang Hyeong-cheol expertly manages to keep the humour present within each situation, without ever belittling the underlying real world events, by constantly focusing on the girls' perceptions and on what is important to them in their ongoing struggles (and why), and so invested in the characters do we become, that our focus cannot help but mirror theirs.
The way in which director Kang Hyeong-cheol manages to successfully blend humour and moving drama within a film which features such a large number of main cast members - making each character an engaging individual with believable and memorable eccentricities and, above all, ensuring that viewers like and ultimately care about each and every one of them - while keeping proceedings almost perfectly paced throughout, is frankly staggering, but successfully achieve it he does, to the nth degree, and if anyone reading this review is wondering how a film with such a seemingly clichéd storyline managed to become one of the highest grossing Korean films of all time, I hope I've gone some way towards providing an explanation.
I first saw Sunny at the London Korean Film Festival 2011, and my seat was next to a couple of Korean girls. As the narrative progressed, I have to admit to being rather moved by the unfolding storyline and that fact must have been fairly obvious to anyone who cared to look. About half way through the film, one of the Korean girls turned to me, smiled, bowed and said "It's ok to cry", and in the case of Sunny, she was absolutely right.
In Sunny, director Kang Hyeong-cheol takes what could easily have been a clichéd and predictable storyline and brings a freshness and vitality to proceedings at every single turn. While it could never be considered deep, Sunny, frankly, never tries to be, and instead successfully concentrates its efforts on mixing genuinely funny humour with truly moving drama, within an altogether incredibly engaging tale.
|Main Cast (Actor... Character):
Yoo Ho-jeong… Na-mi
Jin Hee-kyung… Chun-hwa
Go Soo-hee… Jang-mi
Hong Jin-hee… Jin-hee
Lee Yeon-kyeong… Geum-ok
Kim Si-hoo… (Young) Joon-ho/Joon-ho's son
Kim Yeong-ok… Na-mi's grandmother
Sim Eun-kyeong… (Young) Na-mi
Kang So-ra… (Young) Chun-hwa
Kim Min-yeong… (Young) Jang-mi
Park Jin-joo… (Young) Jin-hee
Nam Bo-ra… (Young) Geum-ok
Kim Bo-mi… (Young) Bok-hee
Min Hyo-rin… (Young) Soo-ji
Directed by: Kang Hyeong-cheol
This review of Sunny comes following a screening of the film at the London Korean Film Festival 2011. I'd sincerely like to thank everyone involved in the organisation of the festival for allowing me to see this film, as well as many others throughout the LKFF.