Korean Movie Review #4: Saving my Hubby (2002)

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Has there ever been an actor you’ve really liked, but couldn’t put your finger on why?

For me, that was Bae Doo-na (배두나), much on my mind since I heard she would be starring in Cloud Atlas. Later, I’d also stumble upon a…let’s say “eye-catching” movie poster of hers from 2003, which I remember constantly distracting me as I looked for jobs around my new home of Busan. And finally this week, when my family and I decided we’d go the 2012 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix on Saturday, I suddenly remembered that she’d played a former volleyball star in Saving my Hubby (굳세어라 금순아) too.

It was time to investigate. Just what was it about her that I found so compelling?

To my surprise, I soon realized I hadn’t actually watched many of her movies, including The Host (2006) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) for which she is best known. I had watched Take Care of my Cat (2001) of course, twice, but in hindsight I probably missed a great deal without subtitles, no matter how good my Korean used to be.

That just left the coming of age movie Plum Blossom (2000) then, probably best known for its numerous sex scenes — not quite the answer I expected or wanted. Still, it is a very affecting movie, with Bae Doo-na’s performance more much memorable for her character’s spunkiness than her frequent nudity. That’d be the image of her I’d bring with me to Saving my Hubby.

And who can blame me with a poster like the opening one above, or trailers like this?

As Wikipedia describes the plot (slightly edited by me):

Former volleyball star Gum-soon (Bae Doo-na) is now a married housewife with a baby daughter. Her husband, Joon-tae (준태, played by Kim Tae-woo {김태우}),* is starting the first day of his new job, when Gum-soon receives word that her in-laws are going to visit the following morning. While she struggles to get their house ready, Joon-tae is taken out for a drink with his new colleagues. Later that evening, while preparing her home for a visit by her in-laws early the next morning, Gum-soon gets a phone call from a nightclub owner who is holding her husband hostage, claiming that he has run up a huge bill and doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Strapping her baby to her back, Gum-soon sets out to rescue her husband.

*Not the former g.o.d. member of the same name, despite what what Wikipedia says!

So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when, just a couple of minutes into the movie, both Gum-soon and Joon-tae are having tantrums more befitting of preteens than young parents. But then they are young — Gum-soon the character and Bae Doo-na the actor are both clearly in their early-20s, only marrying because of her pregnancy, and this youth and unpreparedness for domestic life is a central theme of the movie (Joon-tae’s age is less clear, while Kim Tae-woo the actor is a youthful-looking 31). A parent at 30 myself, it took some effort not to project that more typical age onto the couple, and to judge them less harshly for their childishness. Especially as adult women constantly behaving like children is a pervasive, grating part of Korean popular culture.

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Ironically though, it’s also precisely some of those childish domestic scenes, which dominate the first 20 minutes, that are among the most endearing parts of the movie. Viewers with Korean partners are likely to find much about the couple’s interactions that warmly resonate with their own relationships (mine is at 18:10 when — squeee!— Gum-soon says “정말?!”).

But don’t get me wrong: this is no romantic comedy. Nor, despite Gum-soon’s heroine role, can it remotely be described as a grrrl-power flick. Rather, once Gum-soon receives that phone-call, it’s all slapstick from there, complete with the mandatory inept gangsters, chasing her for accidentally getting their boss’s suit dirty. All of which you can see for yourself via this alternative trailer, which gives a much more accurate impression of the movie:

For the next half hour or so, the ensuing antics are amusing enough. The movie also really captures Korean nightlife well. In particular, when she can’t find the nightclub her husband is in, her lost wanderings readily evoked my first few months in Korea: when smartphones didn’t exist, and all the bars, clubs, norae-bangs, and 24-hour haejang-gook restaurants of downtown Jinju seemed to blend into one vast neon blur…even though they were just a few blocks in reality.

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Indeed, ultimately it becomes too realistic, for about halfway through the movie the gags suddenly seem to dry up, and we’re left with Gum-soon literally running around in circles as she avoids the gangsters and looks for the nightclub — minus the gangsters, it’s like watching me trying to find my hotel in Insa-dong one drunken early morning last summer. When things do finally pick up again, unfortunately it’s so late in the movie that there’s no time to build up the momentum of laughs that would compensate for the long lull.

That said, it’s still worth seeing (you can watch it online here, with English subtitles) — it has its amusing moments, and others that will likely remind many readers of why they’re with their Korean partners, or at least of their Korean newbie days out on the town. But don’t be fooled by the promotional material into thinking that it’s anything more than that, and I’m certain that there’s much better movies with Bae Doo-na out there.

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Any recommendations? :)

9 thoughts on “Korean Movie Review #4: Saving my Hubby (2002)

  1. Just so I can be first:

    It’s not Korean, but Bae Doona also starred in the Japanese “Linda! Linda! Linda!” as a Korean exchange student who finds herself the lead singer of a high school tribute to the J-punk band “The Blue Hearts.” Great movie, great soundtrack.

  2. Linda Linda Linda is the best non-mockumentary band movie ever made. do watch it. apart from that, i liked Barking Dogs Never Bite quite a bit, and i haven’t seen it but Air Doll (another Japanese one) looks good to bring a critical mind to it.

  3. I think I’ve watched almost all the movies starring Bae Doo Na and I think that Air Doll, although not a Korean Movie, is one of the best because it captures Bae Doo Na’s talent really well. The story is endearing and sad at the same time. Of the Korean movies starring Bae Doo Na its almost impossible to choose, but I think her acting skills are the best in Barking Dogs Never Bite and Take Care of My Cat…

    • Thanks for the recommendations everyone: I’ll cover Linda Linda Linda next, and Air Doll the week after that. Strictly speaking, neither are Korean movies of course, but if it takes a Japanese Bae Doo-na fest to get me back into those, then so be it. After all, “Korean Movie Review #4″ was way back in April last year!

  4. I’ll second the recommendations for Barking Dogs Never Bite, which was the first feature-length film by Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and was also my introduction to Korean academic corruption and Korean drinking culture. :)

  5. I liked this movie for what it was, but you’re right, it’s just a cute comedy.

    The Host is outright the best (or arguably one of the two best) Korean SF feature films ever made. Very much worth it. If you see it, email me, and I’ll send you a copy of my analysis of it that was published last year in a Korean journal; the director claims it’s not meant to be political but the claim makes no sense at all — it’s VERY political, and as I read it also very linked to gender, power, and history during the Park/Chun Administrations. Barking Dogs was fun too.

    I didn’t think much of Air Doll, but I loved Please Take Care of my Cat.

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