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'Girlfriend' Prevails With Small, Tactful Jokes

2009/04/23 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Don't be discouraged by the rather familiar plotline or the tacky English title. This reporter had been expecting the worst for what appeared to be a spin-off of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", but Shin Terra's buoyant spy romance "My Girlfriend Isn't an Agent" is a promising asset to the South Korean romantic comedy genre.

It's predictable and cliched, but features some surprisingly good B-rate laughter, winning the audience with a series of small but tactile tickles rather than a big K.O. After dabbling with blood in the slasher film "Black House", the director returns with something more digestible, while actors Kim Ha-neul and Kang Ji-hwan make their mark on the silver screen.

Following a few mediocre franchises, Kim reclaims her reputation as the romantic comedy queen in the tradition of her "Too Beautiful To Lie", while Kang's charms, eclipsed by So Ji-sub's charisma in his feature film debut "The Rough Cut", shines through. While many homegrown romantic comedies make the mistake of switching genres ― Kim's 2006 "Almost Romance" drastically transformed from comedy into a tragedy ― "Girlfriend" has a consistent tempo and flow in straddling slapstick, schmaltziness and speed.

Su-ji (Kim) is a National Intelligence Service (NIS) spy who poses as a travel agent. While she is adept with James Bond-style gadgets and pulling off Jackie Chan stunts in a wedding dress, she's terrible when it comes to lying to her boyfriend Jae-jun (Kang). Tired of her cock-and-bull stories ― how she claims to be on one side of the country one minute and then on the opposite end the next ― he leaves her.

The movie portrays NIS agents as having very mortal flaws and problems. Our protagonist may strut around in a power suit on the job, but she's also seen lounging around in thick glasses and sweats, crying over her broken heart. Her cozy house, like that of a typical young Korean woman, is decorated with cushions and stuffed animals stamped with pictures of her and her now ex-boyfriend.

The story resumes three years later when Jae-jun reappears as a high-profile accountant in a corporate bathroom where Su-jin is working undercover as a janitor. Old wounds reopen and emotions flare as they blame each other for the break-up. The two are, of course, still in love, but the fact that Jae-jun is actually a rookie agent of a different NIS branch complicates things.

In the "Brangenlina" franchise, a husband and wife's marriage problems escalate when their respective agencies, which happen to be rival companies, become involved with the same case. "Girlfriend" is similar, and does some nice PR for the NIS by showing how different departments stick to the honor code in guarding their secrets from one another within the organization and even within the same department ― Su-jin and Jae-jun's respective teams think the other is involved in a Russian spy case.

The beauty of the film lies in the details. In addition to the wickedly funny main cast, some of the most talented actors in the industry ― including Ryu Seung-ryong ("Hwang Jin Yi') and Kang Shin-il ("Black House") ― play memorable supporting roles.

Now showing in theaters. 112 minutes. 12 and over. Distributed by Lotte Entertainment.

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