Despite the arthouse hits celebrated at film festivals, Korean cinema is primarily driven by genre movies. So it’s not surprising when a big Korean studio like CJ Entertainment gives an adrenalin shot to bring a well-worn concept back to life. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the Korean overhaul Miss Granny gives to the 'Vice Versa’ premise which usually sees a child getting a quick taste of adulthood (Big) or both parent and child swapping roles (a la Freaky Friday).
With a strong Confucian foundation, respect for the aged is a pillar of Korean society. Given such prestige, it shouldn’t be surprising that some elders abuse the privilege. Accordingly, the cliché of the bossy perm-haired ajumma (literally 'aunt') is widespread. It’s a cliché with a solid basis in reality as anyone who has ever has been verbally abused, shoved or even slapped by an aging Korean woman can testify.
Na Moon-hee is a 74-year-old actress who has played many such roles as a support player in films like The Quiet Family and Please Teach Me English. In Miss Granny, Na’s character, Oh Mal-soon, is the lead player and is an ajumma writ large. Mal-soon adores her educated professor son Hyun-chul (Sung Dong-il), but she can’t stop criticising everything that her daughter-in-law (Hwang Jung-min) does. Neither the cooking, the cleaning or the raising of the teenage grandchildren is up to Mal-soon’s impeccable standards. Nor does she confine her abuses to family members. In a fit of rage she beats up another septuagenarian woman because she dared flirt with Mal-soon’s special male friend. Believing that she is justified in all her behaviours, the grandmother is shocked when the family consider putting her in an old folks’ home due to the familial stress her bullying ways cause. Overreacting, Mal-soon drops in one self-pitying night at the Forever Young Photographic Studio to have a portrait taken for her surely impending funeral.
Though the film is unusually low-key about it, the photographer’s camera has a form of magical power. Mal-soon remains oblivious until she sees her youthful reflection in the sunglasses of a cheeky would-be teenage Romeo who flirts with her on the bus home.
While the film tarries with several subplots that initially seem superfluous as it sets up its central premise, from the moment young actress Shim Eun-Kyung does her first double take, this comedy barrels along with tear-inducing laughter for almost its entire duration. Adopting the name Oh Doo-ri (as in Au-de-ree Hepburn), Mal-soon spies on her family and her obedient, elderly beau, dresses fancy, and self-indulgently enjoys all the trappings of contemporary South Korean consumerism that were unavailable to her when she was a struggling single mum during the dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s.
If you saw the fabulous Sunny in 2011, you’ll recall the scene where Shim, playing the new girl in town, impersonates her fussy, forthright and foul-mouthed grandmother and endears herself to her classmates. What occurs for about 60 seconds in Sunny goes for about 90 minutes in this film, but such is the charisma of actress Shim that she’s able to effortlessly carry the schtick without it or her getting tired.
Realising Mal-soon’s youthful dream of being a singer, the film capitalises on a previously established plot strand to cleverly work in some K-Pop (and parodies of the same) as well as addressing social anxieties about old men and young mistresses.
The jokes peak a couple of reels before the end, but Miss Granny shares with many other South Korean comedies the ability to gracefully segue into an emotionally rich finale that has been woven into the story from the opening frames and will be dismissed by some (often intellectuals who would have us be ashamed of our emotions) as melodramatic. Believe that criticism if you will, but after an hour-and-a-half of near non-stop laughter, this 124-minute film hits squarely on that sore spot where the fear of death, a grief for a misspent youth and the joys of a life we mostly don’t appreciate, uneasily co-exist.