"We can communicate without talking because she understands my mind language. If you can hear me now, you will also be able to understand the stories I told between the masters using telepathy. I will tell you our story in my mind language."
Korean writer and director Kwak Jae-young has a gift for crafting romantic comedies intended for a mass audience. Even if you have never liked romance movies in the past, Jae-young draws you into his films regardless of your resistance. There are so many unique elements to his stories; the audience doesn't even realize it's a romance until the film is over! And so far, he has been delivering hits like My Sassy Girl, Cyborg She, and my personal favorite, Windstruck. Strong often sassy female characters paired with rather wimpy or overly romantic men is another staple in his stories along with some touching, bittersweet moments that magically work out by the end of the film. My Mighty Princess was no exception to his tradition; it had the same movie elements that mark his style.
The elements I attribute to Jae-young's style might be popular in many Asian films. Since I am most familiar with his work, I notice and compare those similarities solely to his movies. For example, he has a fascination with water, rain, and drowning, all concepts that were included in his previous pieces. My Mighty Princess was no exception. For example, there was one scene where So-hwi, the main character, is going to the library to work on a paper. Her friend Il young, who has been pestering her all week to train with him, follows her. They walk out from under a building and it begins to sprinkle. They quickly walk back under the building because neither one has an umbrella. Suddenly, the rain stops. When they walk back out again, the rain comes down in torrents. The pair gets soaked just like the lovers in My Sassy Girl and Windstruck. There are many moments like this throughout the film that will have fans of Jae-young recalling his other stories.
Other similarities to his previous films include the use of a Korean pop song from Windstruck. Unlike its predecessor, the song is overly used in My Mighty Princess. Almost every time So-hwi looks at Jun-mo, a motorcycle and hockey boy that she crushes on, the music is played. It's never fully understood why it's played or whether it connotes destiny like it did in Windstruck. The reason for the song confusion is because So-hwi and Jun-mo's relationship is never fully developed in the film. Thus, the significance of the music is lost on the audience. Despite being over played, I enjoyed the song and wish I knew its English phonetic name, so I could download it. In general, the music wasn't a strong collection as in Jae-young's previous films. The opening music that is used during the introduction monologue and during the play "Princess Mighty" were the best pieces. The first time the Korean rap song is used felt right and made me remember my favorite film Windstruck, but the overuse of it caused an awkward interruption to the flow of the story. Even the battle music felt a little off. Luckily, there were other unique quirks that drew away from the mediocre music score, such as cameo appearances by Gianna Jun and Tae-hyun Cha, the stars of My Sassy Girl. Can you spot them while watching the film?
Though My Mighty Princess had similarities to Jae-young's other films that range far beyond the inclusion of two of his favorite actors, one major difference was the inclusion of martial arts in a style very similar to Wuxia. One of the characters even mentions a dream where their life was depicted as a wuxia. Practically the entire cast are martial arts' experts with abilities that allow them to run fast or softly, jump from tall buildings or to areas of extreme heights, and counter attacks and situations with super human strength supplied and developed by their Chi. The four male martial arts masters had different styles that range from sign language to a dance/waltz form. Although much of the seriousness of the film is downplayed by its humor, it was still fun and exciting to watch the battle scenes.
Although the battle scenes were heavily featured, they were not the main focus of the film. This was the story of Kang So-hwi, played by Min-a Shin, and her fight against destiny. Min-a Shin has the perfect combination of an unusual look and quirky personality that adds depth to a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. She is a martial arts' prodigy on the brink of mastering her talents. At the same time, she's a troubled college student that wants normalcy. She desires to be like everyone else, so she rejects her super human strength because it isolates her from her peers. This is demonstrated at the beginning of the movie by a very cute play called "Princess Mighty" hosted by the Charyeok Club (a form of qigong). The Charyeok style for martial arts is where So-hwi and her father's powers lie. There is a lot of emphasis on their stances as well as the circulation of their Chi, which is where the family gets their incredible strength. After the play ends, the audience sits in silence refusing to cheer for the performers. It is later revealed that many of the audience members were confused and scared by So-hwi's abilities. They consider her a freak, an attitude and belief that So-hwi internalizes.
Two other main characters that compliment So-hwi are Il-yeong, played by Ju-wan, and Jun-mo, played by Geon Yu. Il-yeong is an old childhood friend. The two were considered martial arts prodigies, and she was the only one who could beat him. Meanwhile, Jun-mo is a current student at So-hwi's university. He's a motorcycle riding, bad boy, hockey player. He's actually everything that Il-yeong wishes he could be. Il-yeong is a comic relief for most of the film. He is as quirky as So-hwi and acts like a gay best friend. Il-yeong and Jun-mo are antitheses of each other and offer dynamic scenes of contrast that adds conflict to the complicated relationship So-hwi has with both. Min-a Shin, Ju-wan, and Geon Yu are stars who make the film worth seeing despite some of the story flaws. Their superb acting skills add humor, depth, and emotion to a light-hearted, feel good romance, which Jae-young Kwak crafts with the precision of an artist.
Everything was beautiful in this film. Even the title sequence for Prime Entertainment, the studio that produced the film, was amazing. I especially liked how the title for My Mighty Princess was drawn on the Green Destiny Sword, an important artifact that everyone is after. When I heard the name of the sword, I wondered if it was a common legend in Asian stories since it was also the name of the sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Despite the amazing directing, acting, and beautiful scenic shots, the flaws of the film couldn't be hid. The major underlying problem: Jae-young tried to squeeze too much into one story. This created many confusing or weak subplots and scenes to rate the film higher than a +3. If there had been fewer subplots or maybe a sequel to the film, he could have "done it all." The side story that suffered the most was the romantic love triangle. The details were never fully explained or explored and the small snippets of flashbacks which hint at some of the reasons behind the romance are easy to miss if you are not paying attention. Even if you are following the film closely, the flashbacks don't always connect thematically and the viewer is left with many questions that don't resolve by the end of the movie. The most disappointing and weakest scene of the film was the ending. It could have been memorable and emotional if Jae-Young had cut some of the repetitious shots and explanations. He's done much better with the climaxes of his other films, so it was difficult to watch this one without comparing it to his other achievements. Part of the confusion and problems associated with the movie could be attributed to the two year delay in its release because of the weakening Korean film industry.
Despite the delay, I'm very happy to have the opportunity to watch another of Kwak Jae-Yong's works of art. His camera angles and focus on scenic shots add much to the character development and intense emotional scenes. Some of these moments include beautiful fields shot during the high moon, perfect for the martial arts battles, or city motorcycle rides that flash by as quickly as the slash of a sword. Jae-Young has a way of highlighting all the environmental and city landscapes that highlight Korea as vast and romantic. There were even moments when it felt like time stopped during specific close-ups of the characters. For example, there is a battle scene where So-hwi is trying to protect a boy she has a crush on. She doesn't want him to know who's saving him, so Il-yeong disguises her with some eye makeup and a hat. During the battle, the camera zooms in to highlight the different angles of So-hwi's face when she's fighting. The jerky pauses offer a full 360 degree facial examination of a not so crafty disguise. It's as if time stops for her. Both characters are lost in their own little world while the audience is lucky enough to glimpse their fantastical land before the action resumes. The entire scene added humor and an endearing modest quality to her character.
Overall, the strengths of the film are the actors, characters, original take on a familiar story, martial arts fighting scenes, and exceptional nature and camera angle shots. Despite these strengths, the weaknesses are major ones. There are too many subplots that are never explained or concluded, a repetitive musical score, and the failure to make the climax and ending as memorable and exciting as previous Jae-young's films. Despite these flaws, I still enjoyed the movie and the mysteries that are revealed as the characters' histories are explored through flashbacks. A lot of the actions and outcomes were unpredictable, which was another unsuspecting strength of the film.
It is the most light-hearted of Jae-young's romantic pieces. Don't go into the movie expecting grand revelations of life, death, and love like he explored in other films. Even without all of that depth and insight, the film can stand on its own with a simple but heartfelt final message: love conquers all.
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