"If you really didn't have anything to say, couldn't you at least have made up an excuse not to come?"
Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo) is a twenty-something post office worker who leads a quiet, somewhat isolated, existence. With a rather sparse social life, mainly consisting of lunch (and a few after-work drinks, every now and then) with her co-workers, she spends most of her free time alone in her apartment tending to her plants, eating take-away kimchi and falling asleep on her sofa-bed, in front of the TV.
However, her (largely self-imposed) separation from the outside world is no longer serving the purpose which it once did, and changes brewing inside her slowly begin to drive a need for something to fill the emptiness which she increasingly feels, and a desire for some kind of connection. In an attempt to serve those needs, she adopts a sickly kitten - determined to care for it and nurse it back to health - and when a would-be writer, (Hwang Jung-min), begins to frequent the post office where she works, she believes that she may have finally found the connection she has been searching for. However, as she tentatively begins to open herself up to him, and the outside world, past traumas are resurrected which threaten to lead her down a very different path...
Jeong-hae's day-to-day life is outwardly unremarkable and, as such, she is not the type of character who would usually be the focus of a story, but every intimate moment we spend in her company reveals that there are numerous hidden layers to this lady who has shut herself off from the outside world out of necessity. She is the person whom everyone knows but no-one has really taken the time to get to know - the girl who is "quiet, but seems really nice" - and, as a result, her story becomes an insight into a world which only she has seen.
From the earliest stages of the film, repeated references to stray eyelashes on her cheek really sum up Jeong-hae, her state of mind and others' perceptions of her - utterly ordinary at a cursory glance, but with something out of place on closer inspection. Except, the people around her choose not to delve to discover what is displaced, leaving Jeong-hae yet further detached from them and even more alone.
As her story unfolds, the tiniest, seemingly inconsequential, events in her life are shown to be of vital importance to the person she is (and is becoming) and, though she tries to face the changes she is going through head-on, part of her still subconsciously fights to remain the way she is - a perfect example of which is her adoption of the kitten, at the same time serving as something she can connect with; as a talking point to facilitate connection with others and also as a readymade excuse for her to leave their company and return to her solitude ("I'll have to leave early... I'm worried about my cat at home all alone").
The more we learn of the depth of her pain, the more blatantly clear it becomes that without the human connection which she so desperately needs (whether she fully realises it or not), she is quickly heading towards either giving up completely or exploding.
Jeong-hae's past is depicted in a series of flashbacks and these are beautifully (and deliberately) understated - often with no explanation as to who is shown or where the scene fits into the overall picture - but each is so exquisitely crafted that no explanation is ever necessary. Case in point: Jeong-hae finds an old book which has been used to set one of her plants on and, as the book is badly soiled, she orders a replacement at the local book store. When the new copy is delivered, she briefly flicks through the pages and we are shown the memories it brings to her mind in a small flashback scene. Lasting only seconds (and with no dialogue), it is nonetheless perfectly clear not only who the person in the scene is, but also the relationship of that character to Jeong-hae, as well as a complete picture of what subsequently happened to them. Different flashbacks appear throughout the length of the film (some relatively subdued, others utterly frenetic), with the movement between them and present day events so natural that each feels like a journey through Jeong-hae's mind. Together these "memories" add up to a complete, and comprehensive, back-story which allows Jeong-hae's present situation to take on a much greater emotional resonance than would otherwise have been possible and to elicit viewer empathy to an astounding degree.
I realise that I have been deliberately vague with regard to proceedings in This Charming Girl but, since almost everything that occurs also has a much larger part to play later in the film, I feel that is necessary.
Rest assured that no matter how mundane Jeong-hae's life appears on the surface, viewers will find it almost impossible not to become utterly immersed in the quietly gripping story of a lady who has far greater depth than any of those around her realise.
Cinematically, This Charming Girl (the original Korean title translating as A woman, Jeong-hae) lies somewhere between art film and fly-on-the-wall documentary, but is stronger than either, thanks to director Lee Yoon-ki's ability to make the hand-held camera work intimate, almost to the point of intrusion, while never allowing the camera to be conspicuous. The result is akin to actually being in the scene, a voyeur on the edge of proceedings, with the unfolding drama feeling palpably real. In fact, the only time during the whole of This Charming Girl that I was consciously aware of sitting, watching a film, was in a scene featuring a drunken young man in a restaurant, and the subsequent motel scene. That's not to say that either of those segments is necessarily less accomplished (and both are required for a specific plot twist), but more that the rest of the film is so astoundingly well made that they stand out as (ever so slightly) weaker by comparison. The aforementioned hand-held camera work used throughout the film is never overdone and will really only be noticeable to those specifically looking for it, but its underlying effect results in a huge boost to the realism present.
This Charming Girl really is Kim Ji-soo's film. She appears in every scene (aside from a couple of small flashbacks) and her performance is exquisite. With the camera often being so close as to actually show the pores on her skin, she never allows it to appear that she is aware of its presence, and that in itself helps the audience to forget that it's there. Her acting is incredible throughout and, in a role where her facial expressions are almost as important as her dialogue, she never fails to make the character of Jeong-hae utterly real. I truly felt for Jeong-hae as the film progressed and a large part of that is thanks to Kim Ji-soo's pitch-perfect performance.
No discussion of her portrayal of Jeong-hae would be complete, however, without mention of a bathroom scene which consists only of Jeong-hae looking at herself in the mirror and crying. The scene is longer than any other scene of its type that this reviewer has ever seen, but Kim Ji-soo effortlessly holds the audience utterly transfixed throughout and makes every bittersweet second unmissable.
The remaining roles are very much supporting parts and all concerned give great performances - including Hwang Jung-min, as the object of Jeong-hae's affection, and Kim Kkobbi, as Jeong-hae in her youth.
This Charming Girl peels away the layers of an ordinary, everyday woman to reveal a character much more interesting and complex than she appears on the surface. An incredible film with astounding realism, This Charming Girl deftly shows that everyone has a story worth telling.
edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) Bear Entertainment Release
which consists of a single disc DVD with deluxe packaging and an accompanying booklet. The film itself is
provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There are no image artifacts and no ghosting present, and the
picture remains consistently sharp with colours which accentuate the realism present in the film. The original Korean
language soundtrack is provided as a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 and each is clear and expansive, giving full justice to the beautifully sparse soundtrack. Excellent subtitles are provided
throughout the main feature.
"Making of" featurette
"This Charming Girl - Their Story"
"This Charming Girl - Continuity"
Footage from the premiere
Behind-the-scenes photo sessions for the film poster
This Charming Girl
Director: Lee Yoon-ki
Release Date: 18th July 2009
Subtitles: English, Korean
Country of Origin: South Korea
Picture Format: NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Sound: Dolby 5.1, Dolby 2.0
Disc Format(s): Single Disc DVD
Region Code: 3
Duration: 100 (mins)
Publisher: Spectrum DVD