Let me just put this out there: Sunny is an absolutely amazing movie in every single way. Everything I say in this review will reflect that. If that's all you wanted to know, you needn't read any further (though I hope you will). There's a part of me that wants every movie to be as amazing as Sunny is, but there's another part of me that enjoys how rare they are.
It makes seeing them that much more exciting, and it makes telling everybody about them that much more enjoyable.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 New York Korean Film Festival. It is being reposted to remind New Yorkers that they can see it for free (on a big screen) tonight at the Tribeca Cinemas. More information on that can be found here.]
Sunny (Sseoni) Director: Kang Hyung-Chul Rating: NR Country: South Korea
I graduated from high school approximately two years ago. When I left, I said a lot of goodbyes that I expect to be permanent. Some of those goodbyes were to people I didn’t really know, and some of them were to people I was very close with. Now, I have a different life with different friends, and I’m happy with that, but there are a few people who I still try to keep in touch with. Most of them are friends I have had for the majority of my life. Some of them are not. As much as I’d like to, I don’t know if I will still be in touch with any of them in three years, let alone twenty-three. But maybe in twenty-three years I’ll go to a high school reunion, and I will see old faces and try to rebuild some kind of relationship. I don’t know. I haven’t even been alive for twenty-three years.
I tell you all of this because I think it’s why Sunny meant so much to me. On the surface, it seems like there’s nothing for me to relate to: I didn’t grow up during the 1980s (let alone go to high school then), I’m not a female (nor did I have many female friends), and I have pretty much no idea what it’s like in South Korea outside of the films that I see from there. Despite all of that, something resonated with me, and I have been wrestling with it ever since the credits rolled, trying to figure it out.
Sunny, in a nutshell, is a story of a group of women trying to rekindle their friendship from twenty-five years ago. Although it is in many ways an ensemble piece, it has a very clear protagonist: Im Na-Mi, who had played the archetypal “new girl” in the group (which was named “Sunny”) years ago. Everything is shown from her perspective, and the film frequently (and seamlessly) shifts from the present time to their high school years.
And when I say seamless, I mean seamless. I have never seen better transitions into flashbacks ever. Nearly every single switch happens within a single shot, so nothing is ever jarring or surprising. It is clear immediately what time period the film is in, which is hugely important, since Sunny is split pretty much in half as far as screentime goes.
Impressively, I found both time periods equally compelling. Generally films of this nature have one story which is weaker than the other, but no matter when the film was taking place, I was always very happy to be along for the ride. And it is one hell of a ride.
Sunny is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, no question. I was laughing constantly throughout the film. I was laughing so hard that I felt really awkward about it, and I think it’s because I watched Sunny alone. There were so many moments where I wanted to call my friends up and tell them just how amazing everything was. I really wish I had seen it with a group of close friends. It certainly would have been fitting, given what the film is about, but I generally think that laughs are best when shared, and there are more than enough laughs to go around. And in the rare moments when I wasn’t laughing, I was completely absorbed in whatever was on screen, usually some kind of tense or intense drama, which was just as deftly executed as the comedy.
Although it somehow managed to make the scenes feel somewhat realistic, the phrase “over-the-top” would absolutely be an appropriate way to define some of Sunny’s more insane sequences. Perhaps the craziest thing that happens is a fight scene taking place between Sunny and a rival group of girls. That in and of itself could be pretty ridiculous, but it happens to take place at the same time as a political riot, so high school girls, protestors, and government soldiers are all fighting simultaneously. It’s a truly beautiful sequence, and it is followed soon after by the most amazing purse-based revenge I have ever seen. But really, pointing to one scene is just silly, because I could point to literally any scene in the film and use it as proof of Sunny’s quality.
The benefit of Sunny’s dual timeline is that it allows for the film to really show how the characters changed over the twenty-five years, but also how similar they remained. Sure, their life situations were completely different and many of them didn’t end up in the places they hoped they would, but their personalities and characters stayed, for the most part, consistent. It was always clear which character was which, even before they were named, and that’s a testament to the excellent characterization that spanned both periods.
I like to believe that in twenty-three years I will be able to look back on my time in high school as fondly as the characters in Sunny do. I’m not far enough removed from the experience to have any sense of it. But if I stay in touch with any of my old friends, or if I somehow reconnect with someone years down the line, it’s nice to think that maybe we could be as close then as we were just a few years ago. I simply don’t know.
I do know, however, that if I watch Sunny five, ten, perhaps even twenty-three years from now, I will still love it. By locking itself firmly into time, the film paradoxically becomes timeless. Life now is not like life was twenty-five years ago, and life twenty-five years from now will not be like it is now. But Sunny will be the same.