Friday, March 23, 2012

The Spy Who Loves Me? My Girlfriend is an Agent at Free Korean Movie Night

A look through Korean films released theatrically in the US could lead one to think that the nation’s  movie going masses are largely depressed, going to the movies as a form of group therapy by bearing witness to intense suffering and psychologically draining confrontations.  Fortunately, institutions like the New York Asian Film Festival and Korean Cultural Service prove otherwise by bringing over films that represent a wide spectrum of genres from Korea’s vital industry.  

Prime evidence comes in the form of the next free movie screening from the Korean Cultural Service, My Girlfriend is an Agent, a romantic comedy wrapped up in a classic spy tale’s over sized trench coat, often tripping over its awkward tailoring.  Unlike some big messy blockbuster hopefuls that explode in every possible tonal direction, those at the helm of My Girlfriend is an Agent know how to keep things in proportion.  It is a comedy first and foremost with enough light-hearted action and romance to set up the laughs.

While in the midst of intercepting some international criminal activity, NIS agent Ahn Soo-ji finds herself concealing her clandestine activity from her boyfriend on the phone by claiming to be on Jeju Island.  It’s an alibi she’s used one time too many, as he is one foot out of the relationship and a boarding pass away from an international flight to somewhere far away from Korea.  This brings Ahn back to a similar situation three years ago with one time significant other, Lee Jae-joon.  The difference being that unbeknownst to her, while she was secretly carrying out her undercover activities, he was also pulling the wool over her eyes, his flight abroad being a part of his own top secret affairs.

The double deception between would-be lovers will no doubt lead to Mr. and Mrs. Smith comparisons.  And while I am not sure whether I’ve seen that movie or not (If I did, any significant memory of it is all but faded away), I will presume to report that the similarities are few and far between, aside from this general convention.  The couple in ‘Girlfriend’ while certainly attractive, are not being played up as sexy.  Rather, imagine if the star-crossed crime stoppers were played by Steve Carrel and Tina Fey and you have a more accurate idea of the ensuing antics.  

If you are expecting lots of flimsy excuses to get the female lead into revealing outfits and compromising physical positions, you’ll be disappointed or pleasantly surprised depending on your agenda.  Despite the seemingly guy-centric English title, the movie is rather evenly split between both leads, maybe spending a bit more time on Jae-joon’s comedic bumbling than the other way around.  

Another operation brings Soo-ji and Jae-joon together once again after the long separation.  They are each angered about the breakup, feeling it was caused by the other’s dishonesty, but naturally a wispy smoke ring of love still lingers in the air.  They go through their awkward attempts at rekindling a relationship, while both, still unbeknownst to the other, begin to tackle the same international threat of bio-terrorism, world domination, or something to that effect...clearly, the dysfunctional relationship humor makes a much stronger impression than the cloak and dagger stuff.  

Western audiences might be thrown for a loop by a traditional Asian chasteness that runs through the story. Still thinking of the Smiths and their marital counseling? Never mind that; this pair is working on holding hands and first kisses.

Despite this traditional seeming restraint, there is a fun bit of role reversal that flies in the face of old fashioned expectations. Soo-ji definitely wears the pants in this partnership. Her fighting skills are far superior to those of Jae-joon, who has the geekier talent of being a wiz with codes. Meanwhile, his inability to utter any form of communication to his team that isn’t inappropriate, along with an ineptitude with firearms, is a source of great mirth.

Of course, neither of them is particularly good at the job. While Soo-ji is the more capable combatant, she has the grace and subtlety of a bull in a shop that sells...some kind of porcelain.  It makes it almost plausible that these two supposed super sleuths cannot figure out that the other is in working for a different branch of the same agency.  That nobody on either of their crack teams is quite a bit harder to swallow, but by this point, you’re either charmed by the premise or you’re not.  When these protectors of the free world finally do catch wind of the strange behavior their agents’ significant others display, it leads to even more confusion.  While the turn is nothing shocking or groundbreaking, it’s a good bit of fun better left to be discovered on screen than described here.    

Regardless of the genre, this just wouldn’t seem like a proper Korean movie without some barb tongued verbal exchanges, and here our couple shine.  There are several heated arguments that threaten to go nuclear between the two leads, which steal the show movie’s international incident subplot. These aggro conversations are what offer something unique, making for a refreshing difference from the usual back and forth between Hollywood comedy couples.  

A true comedy at heart, consider the secret codes and sinister canisters an extra bonus.

My Girlfriend is an Agent screens for free on Tuesday, March 27, 7:00 PM, at Tribeca Cinemas. See the Korean Cultural Service website for details.


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