Miseuto robin ggosigi, or Mr. Robin kkosigi, or Seducing Mr Perfect (2006)
It’s a sad fact of life that all romantic films are formulaic. They depend on coincidences and unlikely turns of event to keep the couple twisting slowly in the breeze until it’s time for them to slowly wrap themselves around each other in the first real kiss. So, if all you want is something superficial, then the traditional romance is for you. But if you want something different, you are suddenly pitched into a very unpredictable world in which writers and directors try to tweak the formula to make it new.
In this instance, Korean cinema offers us Miseuto robin ggosigi or Mr. Robin kkosigi, also distributed as Seducing Mr Perfect. It tries to be innovative by producing a culture clash with a traditional Korean office suddenly revolutionised by the arrival of a man from head office. He’s second-generation Japanese and completely Americanised although, for the purposes of navigating the business and social world, he understands almost everything said to him in Korean. He even manages the odd word or phase in Korean, but we are left to assume his Japanese grandfather neglected to teach him spoken Korean. A real failure in parenting there!
It’s a genuinely strange experience to watch a film in which one of the lead characters listens with full understanding to one language and then replies in a second. This dissonance spreads to the rest of the film in that we have a man from a completely different culture immediately accepted into the Korean world. I hesitate to be direct, but painting Korean society as accessible to outsiders is little more than a fantasy. Although there’s a certain real-world deference to Americans — they are, after all, helping to defend the South against an increasingly belligerent North — Korea is not as comfortable with foreigners as shown in this film, particularly because our hero is of Japanese stock. This film was written when the Bush policies seemed to be fostering increasingly poor relations with the North. Worse, there were real difficulties surrounding the US bases on Korean soil with the usual arrogant ignorance of the soldiers inflaming local opposition to their presence. Korean attitudes towards Japan are also ambivalent. The historical rivalry and militarism remains even though the rhetoric has changed. The two states see some benefit in a good neighbour policy as a common front against the North. But I seriously doubt the arrival of a new “boss” with this background would have been welcomed with such open arms. What’s worse is that he seems to depend on corporate spying to get his results. Not something that would endear him to Koreans who struggle with their own problems of business ethics.
As to our heroine, Min-jun played by Jeong-hwa Eom, there’s no background laid for her sudden demonstration of deep knowledge and understanding of mergers and acquisitions in general, or of this proposed takeover of a Japanese company. She’s just a random lawyer who’s plucked from obscurity and then magically outshines everyone, both as a spy and an analyst. If you are going to have a woman embarrass male colleagues in a patriarchal society like Korea, then you should lay more background to demonstrate her expertise. As it is, our first view of her is as a dishonest slacker. She claims an operation for the removal of her appendix. In fact, she has just returned from an unauthorised expedition to Hong Kong where she hoped to meet her boyfriend for a birthday bash.
In fairness, Jeong-hwa Eom actually does rather well in what is a woefully underwritten role. I ended up liking her even though she is asked to play one of these slightly klutzy, dizzy and insecure women whose relationships always seem to go wrong. She is therefore twice victimised. She would be hopelessly patronised by the men around her at work and she is considered little more than a sex bunny by her boyfriend. Yet this is a woman who, when the Japanese deal is floundering, is able to pull the threads back together and save the day. As I said, this is a fantasy so we are invited to suspend disbelief and live through the moment of her success. After all, you only know for certain that you’ve won when the ink is drying on the contract.
The manner of her victory does require some comment. She pulls the Japanese team into a side room and explains that they must see past her boss as a bullying American. The fact his grandfather worked for this Japanese company is revealed. Underneath this unfortunate American exterior is a good Japanese grandson. The negotiating team go all misty eyed. The leader berates her for not saying so earlier. Of course this man can trample all over their values and traditions. The Japanese must show solidarity with each other. The deal will go through. I wish all mergers could be so easily completed.
Anyway, putting aside the incredible business deals and what we see of Jeong-hwa Eom as she becomes a leading Korean business woman, the real problem with the film is in Daniel Henney’s performance. To say he is wooden is being kind. Yes, he shows off his pecks and no doubt would be considered a hunk by Korean standards, but he is seriously lacking in the charisma stakes. Let’s be clear about this. He was dumped by his last girl friend. Rather than accepting this dismissal, he stalked her in an attempt to get her back. Not surprisingly since this happened in the US, the girl was a signed-up member of the NRA, pulled out her gun, and shot him. Only then did he get the message his presence was no longer tolerated. So this is a really unpleasant kind of guy, a corporate spy and raider who always wants his own way as he fights his way up to top management. Yet when he gets to Korea, he is magically transmuted into this sensitive guy with an immediate rapport with this local girl such he can offer her courtship advice on how to win the hearts of local men. As I said, this is a fantasy.
Yet, remarkably, in 2007, this film was nominated for two Grand Bell Award, the South Korean equivalent of the Oscars, Sang-woo Kim for Best New Director and Daniel Henney who went on to win the award for Best New Actor. It just goes to show that I have no understanding of what makes a good film in Korean eyes. It also probably means that as a straight man, seeing Henney without his shirt on a couple of times doesn’t persuade me this is a good film.