My Sassy Girl (Yann Samuell, 2008)
Love Me If You Dare (2005), director Yann Samuell's debut film, tells the love story of Sophie and Julien, childhood sweethearts who make a pact to exchange dares. The pranks continue on, changing quite alarmingly from innocent and juvenile to serious and damaging. Samuell embellishes the psychotic romance with confectionery colors, animated sequences and other visual treats. However, the film struggles to get past the on-screen misanthropy, ending up being confused and contrived.
When Samuell was tapped to direct the American remake to Kwak Jae-young's My Sassy Girl (2001), replacing Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham (2002) fame, I thought it was an interesting, intriguing but ultimately worrisome decision. My Sassy Girl is about a university student (Cha Tae-hyun) who lands himself in a lopsided relationship with a girl (Jun Ji-hyun) he rescued in a subway station. Like Samuell's debut feature, My Sassy Girl thrives on an extraordinary romance, one that is characterized by symptoms of sadism and masochism, if only on a truly emotional and psychological level. However, My Sassy Girl succeeds on being utterly enjoyable and genial, which explains why it became one of the most successful Korean films and why its charm crossed borders, gaining much popularity in other Asian territories.
Samuell's remake is pretty much faithful to the original film, save for a few modifications. The guy (Jesse Bradford), from being a slacking engineering student in the Korean film, becomes a business student who wishes to succeed in his endeavor, hopefully earning for himself a mid-level managerial job in a tractor company where his father worked for decades as a repairman. Thus, what we essentially get is your typical guy-next-door, whatever mischief and naughtiness the original film imparted on its leading man is given to the remake's token sidekick, Leo, a porn-addicted yet loyal philosophy student (Austin Basis). The so-called sassy girl (Elisha Cuthbert) remains practically the same, cute-as-a-button yet upfront, vicious, and violent, most especially when drunk. She's given a more exhaustive background though, including a father who does not merely disapprove of her newfound relationship (in the original film, we only see the father berate the guy over shots of wine before getting totally wasted) but gives a reason to his disagreement. Basically, the remake tries to fill in the holes the original had and make the romance more grounded on logic than in mere sleight of hand, which is a pity. Kwak's My Sassy Girl works because it is hilarious in its unabashed illogic but clever in its musings on fate and circumstance.
A lot got lost in translation apparently. While the basic storyline and some of the more famous scenes were retained, Samuell's remake lacks a certain vigor, that irreverence to societal norms that are probably endemic to Korea which made Kwak's film very watchable. In Kwak's film, when the guy carries the girl on his back, it implies a very uncharacteristic servitude over men that is only reserved for the closest of lovers; or when the girl orders the guy around culminating in having him chase her across the park wearing her stilettos, those psychotic yet seemingly innocent pranks bear an indifference, if not rebellion to the traditionally male-dominated society. Samuell loses by default. America adores equality and abhors prejudicial traditionalism. Therefore, the scenes borrowed by the remake from the original are plainly comedic and charming, but lacking any other substance than what is shown onscreen.
Samuell's remake is definitely not a bad film. Actually, it is far better than most romantic comedies that have been showing in theaters. However, as with most remakes, it is burdened with the inevitable need to justify its existence beyond being commodities for moviegoers who are allergic to subtitles. Keeping that in mind, it's quite safe to say that Samuell's My Sassy Girl is candidly an unnecessary Hollywood expense.