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'Soonjeong' Stays True to Its Heart

2008/12/04 | 585 views | Permalink | Source

By Joon Soh
Contributing Writer

Since debuting in 2003, the sweet, wistful online comics by Kang Full have become a pop culture phenomenon in South Korea, generating countless Internet hits and message board discussions. Their incredible online following, however, failed to translate into box office success, as the first two attempts at bringing the comics to the big screen ("A.P.T" and "BA:BO") resulted in commercial flops.

But the third time may be the charm for the popular Internet cartoon. Opening on November 27, "Soonjeong Manhwa" ("Hello Schoolgirl"), based on Kang Full's first serial, topped the box office in its first weekend. And the popularity is well deserved, as the film version adroitly brings the sweet and poignant love story to life.

Both the online and cinematic versions of "Soonjeong Manhwa" ("Hello Schoolgirl", which translates into "Pure Hearted Comic") revolve around two unconventional romances where age difference plays a role. In one of the relationships, between an 18-year-old high school girl and a shy 30-year-old man, the age gap is noticeable and highly questionable; in the other, between a melancholic 29-year-old woman and a determined younger man, the disparity seems more due to life experience than physical age.

The film's director, Ryu Jang-ha, wisely avoids trying to recreate the serial comic, and instead, finds his own way of interpreting the two distinct relationships. Ryoo, who also helmed the sentimental drama "When Spring Comes", recombines the scenes and details of the original serial and adds many of his own touches. Some of the changes are major, such as setting the story in the summer instead of winter, while others are more subtle.

Though the film ends up deviating much from the comic's plot, Ryoo preserves the original's essence - the gradual growth and buildup of love regardless of age difference. Much like the comic, the film remains true to love's internal logic, no matter how embarrassing or quirky, and makes a potentially scandalous relationship seem sweet and chaste.

Most importantly, Ryoo succeeds in capturing the tenderness of the online comic, which slowly comes to the surface as the relationships unfold. There is a rich, layered quality to the film, where each little decision or gesture leads to further meanings and possibilities.

Some fans of Kang Full may find fault with how much the film departs from the original comic. Indeed, there are times when the movie aims too much for the conventionally beautiful, sacrificing the awkward, self-deprecating humor that drives much of Kang Full's works.

On the other hand, these same fans should be pleased to know that when it matters, the film version is unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, just like their beloved online comic.

In theaters. 113 minutes. 12 and over. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.

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