Hellcats (Ddeugeoun-geosi joh-a) aka I Like It Hot [2008] • South Korea

What a surprise this turned out to be. I couldn't get past the poster for the longest time. It's dumb and makes Hellcats look like a film I wouldn't want to see.

I recently watched An Affair (Jung sa), and although I didn't like the film at all I liked the performance by Lee Mi-Suk and wanted to see more of her. So this was it, a film about three stages of womanhood (high-school, twenty-something, just over-the-hill) and the angst of relationships.

The film owes most of its success to brilliant casting. The film's first casting coup, Lee Mi-Suk, turns in a solid performance as a forty-one year old (she's several years older than that in real life) stage designer confronted with 'early onset' menopause. As a result, or in conscious reaction to this news, she runs hot and cold in intelligent and honest ways with an actor working on the same production as her who's twelve years her junior. The guy is a bit of a playboy but seems earnest in his intentions and the fact that Lee is beautiful and still has the hot factor makes it a believable relationship.

The film's second casting coup was landing Ahn So-hee of the popular K-pop group, the Wonder Girls, to play Lee's teen-aged daughter. She's both precocious and naive and wants nothing more than to land a first kiss from her boyfriend of three years who seems more interested in motor bikes and video games than her. Many of the film's more bitingly humorous moments originate in the interactions she has with her mom and her aunt (played by Kim Min-hie, more on her later). The three women live together but it's Ahn who seems the mature one, suffering the emotional vicissitudes of her elders with aplomb. In her personal life, not sure how to get what she wants, she's helped along by the charming Brazilian born and exotic Jo Eun-ji. Their youth lends itself to a credible confusion between love and friendship, creating a relationship that's touching without being melodramatic.

Finally, the biggest and most welcome surprise is the performance of Twiggy model Kim Min-hie who anchors and narrates the film. She's a twenty-seven year old screenwriter, and younger sister to Lee, who ends up torn between pursuing her career (and her self, really), living the bohemian life with her never gonna make it dead-beat musician boyfriend, and marrying a successful, good-looking guy who seems to love her. Her performance is genuine, pulling off the impossible: acting drunk and shrill without losing any of her charm. She won't appeal to everyone, but for context let me state that I seldom, if ever ... in fact I almost always hate when actors play drunk, but Kim's performance worked for me. She's not drunk all the time. It's only a few scenes, but under normal circumstances this is enough to ruin a role, if not a film, for me.

Kim Min-hie burst into the limelight at a very young age with a very low body fat ratio as a model and fashionista. Her first few attempts at acting were met with chuckles and derision. She took six years off to study the craft of acting, including voice control and breathing techniques and, if her performance in Hellcats is any indication, it worked wonders. What's remarkable is that she doesn't seem to be acting at all, even in the drunk parts. She's just being filmed, being herself. I think that's the best kind of acting. She is also blessed with a facial structure (and I'm aware I'm being subjective here) that allows all kinds of different personalities to emerge, depending on camera angle, hair style, and internal motivation. I'll quit with the hyperbole now and just say she is a joy to watch in this film.

Hellcats isn't high brow art fluff nor mumblecore indie bullshit. It's an intelligent, mainstream feminist comedy. The male characters may not be much more than stereotypes but they aren't needed to be. They aren't belittled for being men and they are given enough substance to engage us, but this is a film about the women. Director Kwon Chil-in had success in 2003 with the hit Singles, which explored similar territory, and this is a worthy follow-up if you follow this kind of thing. I should give it five stars but I don't think many would believe it, so ....


Director: Kwon Chil-in
Starring: Lee Mi-suk, Kim Min-hie, Ahn So-hee


An Affair (Jung sa) [1998] • South Korea

So-Hyun is a thirty-eight year old woman unhappy with her life. We can see it in her eyes but nowhere else. The only clue we get is that her husband fails to notice that the electrical wiring in her kitchen needs a complete overhaul. Never underestimate the bond between woman and kitchen, I guess. When her more than a decade younger sister's fiancé shows up things get tense. Her sister and the fiancé had been living in the States but the sister has not returned to Korea just yet. This gives So-Hyun the opportunity to have sex with the fiancé.

So-Hyun is portrayed wonderfully introspectively middle-aging by veteran actress Lee Mi-Suk, but the burden falls upon her to play the whole scenario out inside her head and inform us through her eyes. The film itself doesn't help. Directed with the rugged determination and overbearing woe-is-me of a bad stage play the film does a reasonable job suggesting that reasons for the affair might well exist outside its universe but fails to put them on screen.

The fiancé, miscast by a mile and played woodenly by Lee Jung-Jae, has about as much charm as a turnip. He has a typical guy job, which we see him engaged in once, of telling other people what to do. Beyond that he just stands around with his hands in the pockets of his high-waisted pants, brooding. Javier Bardem, he's not. It's impossible to fathom why So-Hyun would hurt so many people who are more important to her than this guy, by not only having sex with him, but also falling in love with him. A lot of the responsibility for the failure of this film is due to this casting error.

I suppose we're to come away with the notion that it wasn't him she fell in love with as much as the idea of falling in love, of falling in love with someone before she gets any older and the possibility of requited love eludes her. In a scene harrowing for its gross out factor the fiancé pretty much lays out this argument for her: "You'll get old. No one will pay you any mind. You'll be sick with no one to tell you they love you. And you won't have any more chances to love. Tell me you love me ." Eew.


Director: Je-yong Lee
Starring: Lee Jung-Jae, Lee Mi-Suk