Sometimes all a film needs is a strong central character and the right actor to portray it for it to be interesting and hold your attention. “This Charming Girl” by director Lee Yoon-ki is just that! Featuring an incredibly nuanced performance by Kim Ji-soo in her film debut, “This Charming Girl” premiered at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2004, winning the “New Currents Award” at the competition.
We meet Jeong-hae, a single, lonely post office worker who has been living alone since the death of her mother, who she cared for a lot. She is a typically unsocial person who doesn’t go out much, except for meals with her workers, and even then she wants to get home as quickly as possible. Home is a safe sanctuary, where she likes to spend time cleaning, watching TV or taking care of her adopted sick cat. She abhors male intimacy, so much so that she ran out on her ex-husband on their honeymoon. Through several well-placed flashbacks, we learn not only of Jeong-hae’s relationship with her mother, but also what makes her the woman she is today.
Saying anything more about the plot would be a major disservice to first-time viewers of the film, for Jeong-hae’s story is one that deserves to be gone into knowing as less of it as possible. While a synopsis of the film may sound modest, it is, to the credit of director Lee Yoon-ki’s script ,that it keeps you fully engrossed in her story, letting us in slowly into her life, revealing her backstory to us at its pace, giving us a glimpse into the maze that is her mind and feelings. So well written is the character that you get to know her intimately, every action and reaction of hers feeling completely natural to the viewer, to the point that if one were to hypothetically meet this fictional character in real life, one would be able to guess what she would be doing at a particular time or in a particular situation to almost near certainty. Special mention is also reserved for how well researched the character of a post office worker is here, giving a detailed look at what work life is for employees at such a work place. There is an assuredness to how Lee weaves themes of loneliness, loss and childhood trauma into the narrative, which is heightened with the use of Lee Yeong-ho and Lee So-yun’s music.
If Lee wrote the character well, it would not have been possible to empathise with Jeong-hae without Kim Ji-soo’s incredibly nuanced and layered central performance. The way that she has embodied Jeong-hae is nothing short of phenomenal. Though she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with, her feelings in any given situation are brilliantly etched out in her reactions and mannerisms. One particular scene involving a knife in a park is a standout , with every thought seemingly going through her mind spelt out clearly on her face. Her performance is elevated with cinematographer Choi Jin-woong’s mostly hand-held camerawork, keeping us in close quarters with her for the majority of the film. Before he became one of South Korea’s most bankable stars, Hwang Jung-min worked in some small productions such as this one. Though he features in the role of a writer who’s a customer at the post office Jeong-hae works, a role that can be described as an extended cameo at best, he rightfully takes a back seat and lets Kim Ji-soo take the centre stage, providing apt support when required.
With a title like “This Charming Girl”, one would almost be forgiven for thinking that this might be a rom-com or a romantic drama. Some might even find it unapproachable or too much of a slow burn. But for those that decide to give “This Charming Girl” a chance, they will be richly rewarded with an excellent character study that they cannot help but think back to days after they’ve seen the film. Though they’ve both gone on to do a fair few commercial films with various degrees of success, their debut in “This Charming Girl” remains both director Lee Yoon-ki’s and actress Kim Ji-soo’s crowning glory till date.