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Please Teach Me English
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by Jay Seaver

"A goofy little thing, and proudly so."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Please Teach Me English" is that even though star Lee Na-yeong is a former model, her character remains a dork pretty much all the way to the end. Sure, there's a moment in a dream sequence when the audience gets the idea that her looking plain may in fact take a little effort, but when she takes off her glasses and tries to look pretty a few scenes later, she looks like she's trying too hard, as opposed to a starlet who has had all her uglifying make-up and costume choices removed. Cinderella-story veterans may find this to be the strangest thing that the movie does, despite it being stuffed with silliness almost to bursting.

And "silly" really is the name of the game here; the first act especially has little animated bits poking out of every corner and goofy asides; many of the characters, especially the leads, are broad and cartoonish. There are untranslated jokes on the English-language television station the characters watch to practice their comprehension ("War in Somewhere" being one of my favorites). The narration provided by Na Young-ju (Lee) alternates between the kind of self-confident, um, exaggeration and simple confession. I rather suspect that this is a movie made with ten-to-fourteen-year-old Korean girls in mind, although it works well enough that even someone as far outside that demographic as me can enjoy it.

The movie's heroine, Na Young-ju, is a twenty-five-year-old entry-level civil servant who still lives at home with her family; kind of nerdy-looking with her glasses and bad haircut. As the movie opens, she's the one left standing when her entire office runs and hides at the site of an American come to complain about his electric bill, and is later elected to be the person in the office who will take English classes so that they can handle foreigners. She doesn't want to, but has something of a change of heart when she runs into Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk of Volcano High), a good-looking, sharp-dressed guy who Young-ju would recognize as not being the ladies' man he presents himself as if she had any experience with men at all. Moon-su (or, as he's called in the English class, "Elvis") has his sights set on Cathy (Angela Kelly), their attractive Australian instructor, and finds Young-ju ("Candy") an annoying distraction - although we'll later find out that even if he's learning English to impress girls, it's not exactly for the reasons we may expect.

Please Teach Me English embraces its insanity. The romantic leads are both oddballs, and fully capable of being selfish and oblivious, but the actors keep them from being complete one-note cartoons. Lee Na-yeong makes Young-ju a decent-enough sort, a little childish, perhaps, but not stupidly so. Jang's "Elvis" is all bluster hiding a pretty decent guy - the type that doesn't realize "it doesn't feel like I'm talking to a woman" is a pretty mean thing to say. They make a somewhat odd, low-key couple: When they first meet, the first reaction is that Young-ja can do better, except that, realistically, she probably can't. So the movie spends its time digging out the more likeable, endearingly dorky aspects beneath Moon-su's abrasive exterior.

The rest of the cast isn't even that deep; a lot of them have one silly character trait and that's it. One of the language students is in her 20th program, another is an older pizza delivery man who is smitten with Cathy. Angela Kelly doesn't really even get a funny trait to play with, although that may just be a result of me not speaking Korean - there seems to be a running joke about her character's Korean not being very good and her not realizing it.

There are a lot of plays on language in the movie, as is to be expected given the subject matter; when watching a subtitled print, an English-speaking viewer might get a little dizzy from scenes where the characters are speaking beginner's English, there are animated Korean subtitles going on, and then subtitles added for the English-language audience on top of that. It's helpful at times - I might have missed the pun about a "negative speaker" versus a "native speaker" otherwise. The festival program says that co-writer/director Kim Sung-su grew up in a tourist district near an American military base, and as such picked up pretty decent English himself. It's helpful, letting him make puns in two languages, and getting better performances out of his foreign actors than a lot of directors do.

Although one of Kim's biggest international hits was a big action spectacle (Musa the Warrior), he shows a decent knack for comedy here. It's pretty lightweight stuff, and at times rather busy: Especially during the early sequences, there will be lots of animated bits going on in the corners of the screen, with animation used for cartoon-like effects: Words popping out of mouths, hearts floating out of heads, logos jumping off buildings to symbolize how much English has invaded everyday Korean life. It's a bit of an information overload, frankly, even without considering the English subtitles. It's mostly used to compress early exposition, though, and the movie slows down as it goes on, even getting somewhat serious in a later scene or two (although the last scene before the credits is a cute, if disconnected, visual joke). He uses a lot of bright colors and maybe pads the movie a bit, but overall, the movie is cute, just like it needs to be.

Like I said before, this is a cute, fluffy, cotton-candy sort of movie. If you're not into that, well, stay away, this one's not for you. But if you don't mind a little sugar, this is a fun little film.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8979&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/10/05 10:46:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.

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4/26/06 mohamad reza tavakoli 1 stars
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Directed by
  Kim Sung-su

Written by
  Kim Sung-su
  Jo Min-hwan

  Lee Na-yeong
  Jang Hyeok
  Angela Kelly
  Na Mun-heui
  Kim In-mun
  Kim Yong-gun

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