Na-mi (Ho-jeong Yu) is a typical middle-class housewife with a teenage daughter and brusque husband. While visiting her mother in hospital, she is reunited with her high school friend, Chun-hwa (Hee-kyung Jin). The two happily reminisce about the good old days. Na-mi was a transfer student and Chun-hwa welcomed the new girl into her clique. The clique was called 'Sunny’ comprising of seven girls who always hung out together. Chun-hwa who is now terminally ill, asks Na-mi to get together the old members of 'Sunny’ for the last time before she dies.

4
Life truths told well in Korean smash.

the film is mostly about the space between youthful expectation and adult experience

KOFFIA Korean Film Festival: The second-biggest box office hit of 2011 in its homeland, Kang Hyung-chul’s second feature—following the 2008 comedy Scandal Makers—is an unqualified delight: a big-hearted, confidently made comedy-drama, which filters a quarter-century of South Korean history through the experiences of seven female friends.

While visiting her mother in hospital, fortysomething housewife Im Na-mi recognises a woman in a neighbouring room as her schoolfriend Ha Chun-hwa, now in the final stages of terminal cancer. As a last wish, Chun-hwa asks Na-Mi if she would reunite the five other members of their old high-school gang, nicknamed 'Sunny’—and with her husband about to leave on an business trip, and feeling herself increasingly estranged from the life of her own teenage daughter, Na-mi enthusiastically agrees.

The first, Jang-mi, proves easy to find—working, none too successfully, as a saleswoman for a Seoul insurance firm; a private detective is enlisted to locate the others. The formerly foul-mouthed Jin-hui is now wealthy and, on the surface, at least, respectable (and transformed by one of Korea’s perennial obsessions, cosmetic surgery), while Geum-ok, once an aspiring writer, lives in a dismal apartment, beneath the thumb of her husband and his family. Wannabe beauty queen Bok-hui, meanwhile, has drifted into prostitution. Only the beautiful, coolly distant Su-ji is impossible to trace.

That none of the women’s lives have turned out remotely as they expected should come as no surprise, since the film is mostly about the space between youthful expectation and adult experience. To illustrate this, the writer-director employs a bifurcated structure: as she searches for the other women, Na-mi’s mind drifts back to her schooldays, when, as a shy transfer student from a rural town, she was befriended by Chun-hwa and bought into the group. The remainder of the film alternates seamlessly between the present and the girls’ schooldays in the 1980s, when their nation chafed under the last stages of the dictatorship of General Chun Doo-hwan.

The high-school sequences are especially superb: acutely observed and exuberantly staged, a blur of schoolyard rivalries, furious teachers, hopeless infatuations. (The most significant of which, involving the handsome Jun-ho—who seems always to move in windswept slow-motion, accompanied by a yacht-rock soundtrack—provides the narrative with one of its most quietly devastating through-lines.)

Nor is there a shortage of accumulative detail to be enjoyed along the way. Na-mi’s older brother is a committed anti-government activist, and her provincial grandmother, disdainful of the sophistication of the capital, an inventively foul-mouthed creation. (The film is not without its educational component; I hope, for instance, to find an opportunity to use the Korean phrase 'pencil-dicked f*ckface’ on my next visit to Seoul.) And the chaos of the private detective’s office offers a veritable master-class in physical slapstick. Indeed, between home and school, past and present, there’s enough material here for a TV mini-series, and if Kang never quite resolves a number of these plot-threads (what _does_ happen to Na-mi’s brother, anyway? And was Chun-hwa actually a lesbian, as is hinted?), there’s still more than enough to satisfy and devastate the viewer.

For while the first hour is hysterically funny—culminating in the film’s most impressive set-piece, a vast pro-democracy riot that actually serves as a backdrop to a showdown between the Sunny girls and their rivals in the 'Girls Generation’ gang—the second takes care to amplify the drama. Chun-hwa’s condition worsens. The mystery of Su-ji’s absence remains unresolved, and the depth of Bok-hui’s debasement becomes apparent. And so a transitional scene, in which Na-mi watches a video recorded in the mid-'80s, with the teenage girls leaving messages for their adult selves, proves heartbreaking, encapsulating many of the film’s major leitmotifs in a single moment.

Both in terms of writing and direction, Kang makes some adroit social and political points. Under the Chun dictatorship, we realise, rebellion took many discreet forms: a preference for American brands (Nike trainers, Jordache jeans), or for western pop songs. Or even a simple delight in profanity—demonstrating that, try as it might, the state could never quite stifle individual expression. As such, it’s appropriate for a film that’s subversive in its comedy, yet utterly, unashamedly sincere in its sentiment. It even ends on precisely the right beat—a rarity among Korean cinema. Faultlessly performed by its ensemble cast (and extraordinarily well-cast), it is by any standard a stunning triumph, one of the finest Korean movies of the past decade.

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2 hours 4 min

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