Korean(?!!) Movie Review #8: One Million Yen Girl (2008)

One Million Yen Girl(Source)

Starring: Yû Aoi (Suzuko Satô), Mirai Moriyama (Ryôhei Nakajima), andf Ryūsei Saitō (Takuya Satō). Written and directed by Yuki Tanada. In Japanese with English subtitles. 121 minutes. Available to view online here.

This last month has just been insanely busy for me, with family, bosses, and magazine editors all conspiring to keep me from writing here. So, it was with a certain envy that I finally sat down to watch One Million Yen Girl, about a 21 year-old woman (Suzuko) who escapes her own problems by randomly moving across Japan, saving one million yen (US$9730) at odd jobs before moving on to the next location. If only I had the same freedom.

Minor spoilers follow…

The movie opens with Suzuko finishing a two-month sentence in prison, with the backstory taking up the first fifteen minutes. Working as a waitress after graduation, and living with her parents and twelve year-old brother Takuya, Suzuko is persuaded by a coworker to move out and find a place together with her. Once they sign a lease on a place though, not only does the coworker reveal that her boyfriend is joining her, but she breaks up with him on the moving day, leaving Suzuko to live with a complete stranger. She soon chafes at his palpable sense of entitlement to the new arrangements.

One Million Yen Girl 1

Already, it is very easy to blame Suzuko for her later problems: she should have been more assertive with her coworker. She should have moved out immediately, and so on. Confrontation-avoiding is, after all, one of the main themes of the movie. It is stressed repeatedly as her fleeting presence in various locales compels her to constantly shy away from social situations, with Yû Aoi’s waif-like appearance further adding to her impression of meekness. (Or is that last just a stereotype of mine?)

One Million Yen Girl 4(Source)

But on the other hand, most viewers will likely empathize with Suzuko’s vulnerability after leaving home, as well as her implied reluctance to return to her parents, dreams of independence stalled. Also, while it’s easy to overlook on a first viewing, she turns out to be a surprisingly complicated character, showing her mettle on several choice occasions.

The first, when her flatmate throws away a kitten she brings home, leaving it to get run over in the street, to which she responds by suddenly moving out and throwing all his possessions away. When he claims that one million yen was amongst those, and charges her with theft, she refuses to avoid prison by claiming that they slept together, in which case the charges would have been dismissed as a lovers’ quarrel. (Alas, she appears more resigned than defiant here.)

Like much of the movie though, this is very abrupt, and would have benefited from a few more minutes of seeing their relationship deteriorate first. But it does help us to understand her impulsive streak.

Next, we’re back to the opening scene of her leaving prison, to return as the target of neighborhood gossip.

One Million Yen Girl 2Back with her family and working again (partially to help pay an additional 200,000 yen fine), their first family dinner together is a jarring scene in which her parents soon start shouting at each other about the near-affairs they’re each having, while across them her precocious brat of a brother berates Suzuko for (supposedly?) ruining his chances of getting into a good university. No wonder she resolves on the spot to leave, albeit not before beating up some former classmates who name-call her on the street, and slowly warming to her brother as they come to realize they’ll miss each other. Unbeknown to her, it’s also revealed that he’s being bullied at school.

Soon, she’s at the first of her stops, working at a beachside cafe over the summer. We see her: working; being pursued by a local; awkwardly attending a beach party with him; then finally sharing his bewilderment when, almost before you know it, she’s gone, one million yen richer.

Next, at her second job as a live-in worker picking peaches in the mountains. Where, after some slightly comedic moments with a coworker as she adjusts to her living arrangements and 5:00 am starts, and the elderly hosts rapidly warming to her, some drama ensues after she refuses to be the village’s photogenic ‘Peach Girl.’ The ensuing village meeting called seems rather unlikely, as does their formidable hatred for city folk that suddenly erupts when she continues to refuse, but viewers may appreciate this jolt given the movie’s slow pace. Also, that it’s what propels her to her third job at a large gardening store in a city an hour from Tokyo, where a romance changes everything.

One Million Yen Girl 3A clarification and confession are in order here: I watched the movie the first time thinking that Suzuko’s plan was to save one million yen at her first job, move on, bring the total up to two million at the next, and so on. Partially, this was because the movie title reminded me of a story I once read about a Korean woman who spent most of her twenties amassing savings of 100 million won (US$89, 675), which frankly I was projecting as I watched. In hindsight though, I didn’t pay enough attention during one scene with her brother after the tempestuous family meal, in which she explains that she needed one million to move at all. As Cathy Munroe Hotes at Nishikata Film Review explains, the figure:

…not only matches the amount that she allegedly threw away, but it is also the practical amount that she needs to start up in a new location. Renting accommodation in Japan is a very pricey affair, with landlords demanding key money and other non-refundable fees, a deposit and sometimes several months rent in advance.

It still sounds a little high to me, especially for someone living out of a suitcase. But I am — would have been — happy to suspend my disbelief, and concede that the figure does has have a nice ring to it. (And that I’ve never lived in Japan, which is more expensive than Korea.)

I only raise it because, learning later that her purpose in leaving was never really to save money, then I realized I’d been watching the movie through rose-tinted glasses, forgiving several minor — but cumulative — flaws.

One Million Yen Girl 5(Source)

The first, because if she did plan to save,then at least she would have had a goal at all, rather than being content to find jobs that merely occupied her without leading anywhere. Take that goal away, and suddenly Suzuko was no longer someone with a steely resolve I could admire, who reasserts her independence and makes the best of a bad situation, but instead someone simply running away from her problems.

In itself, that isn’t a bad thing, let alone make for a bad movie. But as it proves to be a mindless escape she seeks, this is reflected in how she lives and works at her first two jobs too. Indeed, no matter how some readers may feel I’m skimming over events in my descriptions above, and that there’s plenty there to engage viewers really, I’ll go so far as to say that, well, nothing really happens between her leaving home and arriving at her third job. (Which is a good hour of the movie.)

One Million Yen Girl 8To be specific, we see precious little beyond her working and then crashing in her room(s). Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: many viewers like Peppermint Candy (2000), for instance, precisely because it required them to actively fill in so many of its gaps themselves (whereas it just frustrated me personally), and would surely be tempted to do the same again here. But with so little of the main character to go on in this particular movie though, it can easily lead people to fill that hour with things that aren’t really there. To pick on one (sorry!), Cathy Munroe Hotes is quite mistaken when she claims that:

The scenes at the seaside and in the mountains were particularly insightful into how an outsider becomes a part of a new community and the ensuing awkwardness of conflicting expectations of members of that community.

As not only is Suzuko deliberately in both communities for a very limited time (and it would come as a surprise to most to hear the beach cafe and customers described as such), but she clearly doesn’t want to become part of either one at all, instead shying away from human contact wherever possible. Moreover, not only did this make perfect sense when I thought she planned to accumulate savings, but it still makes sense knowing she just intended to make enough money to move on too (source, above).

However, understanding her reluctance to remain firmly on the fringes of each community, doesn’t exactly make for a satisfying movie. So while I was watching, I found myself yearning for something memorable, for more of what she did beyond work, for more insight into her thoughts and feelings. For more of anything really.

Yu Aoi CoverTo be clear, this isn’t a reflection on Yû Aoi’s acting skills. Actually, in this, her first starring role, I’d agree with a gushing fan who said (source, right):

…she is the undeniable main character and she gives a knock-out performance that’s worth mentioning! Her expressions of shyness, embarrassment, awkwardness, determination and loneliness are played flawlessly! I don’t know what it is about Yu, but it’s always so easy to sympathize with her characters. She has a certain charm and elegance about her that can easily win over any audience. (Author: acerk21)

Also, while it’s true that there isn’t much range to her performance, as:

…what we get is exclusively the shy, sad, and awkward Yû Aoi with none of the radiant, confident, and smiling. She’s on screen almost the entire two hour running time so the appeal may come from sheer quantity more than anything else, but she performs well and demonstrates she is capable of carrying a film on her own…. (Author: sitenoise)

Again this isn’t her fault, and I look forward to seeing her playing (hopefully) very different characters in more starring roles. But this showcasing of her abilities would have greatly benefited from fleshing out her character more.

To an extent, this gap is filled by extended letters to her brother, read out aloud while we see further scenes of his deteriorating situation with his bullies. Many reviewers find these banal, and only there to play on viewers’ heartstrings. But they do make him a much more vulnerable, sympathetic character, and his refusal to tell his parents or teachers about the bullying — even when a perceptive school nurse provides an opportunity — offer a clear parallel to Suzuko’s own refusal to deal with her own problems, and indeed *spoiler alert* it is precisely her love for her brother — in hindsight, evident in the letters — that precipitates an ultimate return to her family *spoiler over*.

Yu Aoi Busan Internation Film Festival 2010(Yû Aoi at the Busan International Film Festival, 2010. Source)

Letters to a 12 year-old brother though, provide a poor window into the mind of a 21 year-old woman. It is with some relief then, that we see her move to her third and final location, and — despite her best intentions — falling in love with coworker Nakajima, after first — with little prompting — confessing her past to him. (Which again emphasizes the first two trips as more of a backdrop to this moment, rather than something memorable in their own rights.)

If you’ll forgive a long-time married, nearly middle-aged man talking, the actual falling in love scene of these youngsters is very awkward, and feels forced. (Again — notice a trend here? — it would have benefited from more of a lead-up.) But hey, hopefully we’ve all had our instant head-over-heels moments, and the ensuing courtship is genuinely sweet. Certainly, after tolerating her virtual ghost of a character for an hour, I enjoyed her sudden transition back to a human, and looked forward to seeing how their relationship would develop.

*Major spoilers follow*

One Million Yen Girl 6(Source)

You can imagine my disappointment then, when we rapidly see less and less of their time together, and more of her at work getting increasingly jealous of a new attractive coworker that joins his department, then suspicious of the time he spends with said coworker outside of work. Once he starts borrowing money from Suzuko for that, then the writing is on the wall, and the breakup is only shocking for them confessing their love to each other such a short time earlier. (But it wasn’t intentionally unconvincing, for reasons that will be clear in a moment.)

So, when she receives a letter — the first — from her brother in the very next scene, and breaks down as she learns of his being bullied, and his finally dealing with it, there’s nothing in her relationship with Nakajima to stop her likewise finally dealing with her own problems and promptly returning home, even though she’s just shy of her one million yen goal.

One Million Yen Girl 10But the final scene of her doing so? It’s at least twenty minutes too long, because — wait for it — Nakajima’s coworker, with whom he was never two-timing Sazuko, asks him why he didn’t admit he only borrowed money to delay her departure. While it does make for great will-he-won’t-he-catch-her-in-time drama to close the movie, his reticence makes no sense whatsoever. Not least, when she breaks up with him explicitly because of the money-borrowing.

Edit: With thanks to commenter Alice, I completely misunderstood that part of the ending, and now view it much more positively. See here for an explanation of what really happened there.

*Major spoilers end*

In assessing this movie, Niels Matthijs at Twitch wrote that:

The slow pacing of the film will turn some people off, as will the silent characters and stone-faced performances. Those more familiar with Japanese dramas will look past that and have no trouble deciphering the emotional impact of Suzuko’s adventures.

But I’d argue that this line of reasoning — dramas are slow-paced and silent, therefore drama-watchers will like this movie, therefore it’s okay — is flawed, disguising a certain laziness and/or lack of application on the part of director Yuki Tanada. For with just a few tweaks, most of the original story could have been kept intact, while appealing to far more people than Japanese drama fans.

Filiming of The One Million Yen Girl(Source)

In particular, the ending is as inexplicable as it is long and unnecessary, for reasons provided earlier; a more realistic one would free up a lot of viewing time. Also, with so little actually happening at the beach and the mountains, then more a few of those scenes of “silent characters and stone-faced performances” could be removed too. What’s more, the beach and mountains could possibly be even further reduced to add one or two vignettes of further locations and jobs, most viewers probably expecting much more of a road trip than the only three locations we ultimately get. Some would even argue the letter-readings to her brother could be removed entirely too, and I would the ‘Peach Girl’ drama.

Whatever the specifics, there is definitely a minimum of twenty minutes of footage that could have been done away with, and should have been replaced with at least three to five more minutes showing her acrimonious relationship with her flatmate develop; two to three minutes each at the beach and mountains showing her doing something other than arriving there, looking for work, working, crashing, and leaving; and especially ten more of her and Nakajima’s relationship developing, regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails. Had something like this been done, had she been more of a fully-fledged character rather than a ghost, then the movie would have made for much more compelling viewing, with a much more universal appeal.

Without those changes, I can only give the movie 2.5 out of 5 stars. It’s a little frustrating, because the movie (and concept) had lots of potential.

One Million Yen Girl 12Some quick final notes:

  • Given that “[t]he title and promo material might have you believe that One Million Yen Girl is a quirky Japanese comedy, ” then a better translation of the original Japanese title would be One Million Yen and the Nigamushi (Sour Face) Girl, one which “suggests that the real question at the end of the film is whether or not her [sour-face] is replaced with a more cheerful expression.”
  • While I don’t give the movie high marks, and the two viewings for the sake of this review are more than enough for me, it is still a rare movie that my wife — a huge drama watcher — and I could have enjoyed together. With such different tastes, frankly this is a big concern for me us (it doesn’t bode well for a couple if they never watch TV or movies together!), and other readers likewise cursed afflicted blessed with (similar) Asian spouses and partners may appreciate the viewing suggestion!
  • Nine Muses CEOWhen I saw the scene in the image above, when an increasingly distracted Suzuko is berated by her boss for accidentally killing a plant, my immediate thought was that if it was a Korean movie, then he would be hitting and/or pressing down hard on her forehead. Is this just a stereotype of mine again? Either way, this casual violence is a big turn-off for me (it’s particularly gratuitous in Between Love and Hate {2006; 연애, 그 참을수없는 가벼움}), and, with the recent news that the CEO of girl-group Nine Muses was prepared to hit one member on camera, makes me wonder the extent Korean popular culture buttresses and/or reflects this in real life?