At last year’s NYAFF, it seemed like every other film I saw blew me away. Looking back at the roundup, almost half of the non-Japan Cuts crossover films received Editor’s Choice awards from either Hubert or myself, and looking back at that I have no regrets. This year, the lineup has been much less impressive. In fact, I had yet to actually see any films that truly wowed me. I was so looking forward to having that moment of pure joy at seeing something I’d never seen before, but it just wasn’t coming.
Enter How to Use Guys with Secret Tips. Oh joy, how I missed you.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (Namja Sayongseolmyungseo | 남자 사용설명서)
Director: Lee Won-Suk
Country: South Korea
Choi Bo-Na (Lee Si-Young) has been a TV commercial assistant director for years. She has no real chance of upward mobility, and she doesn’t seem willing to put in the effort to change that. Even worse (don’t forget: romantic comedy), her dating life is in shambles. Men are turned off by the weird mop-like hairstyle that pops out from under the hood of her awful yellow sweatshirt. The look does an impressive job of taking a very cute actress and making her extremely unappealing. Well done costume team.
Anyways, one day, the wheels of change are set in motion. Actor Lee Seung-Jae (Oh Jung-Se), who is not really famous but is well-known enough to command some respect on set, arrives and makes everybody’s life just a bit worse. Bo-Na fights him a bit as he tries to undo the concept of the commercial, and that growing relationship will define the film. But first, she must meet the extremely persuasive VHS dealer Dr. Suwalski (Park Young-Gyu), whose advice-on-tape stand appears only when it’s needed, happy to charge $500 to whatever poor soul might feel compelled to pay. Bo-Na, abandoned and alone one night, becomes such a poor soul. Unquestionably, it is the best decision of her life.
The tapes, and there are a over a dozen of them, are intended to teach women how to use guys. Use. Not date. Use. What will men do in this situation? Watch Tape #3. Need to take advantage of this aspect of the male psyche? Tape #9. The tapes are narrated by Dr. Suwalski and feature two odd-looking white people who act things out. And so, tapes in hand, Choi Bo-Na learns how to look, stare, smile, flirt, beg, and all of the other actions necessary to get by in a man’s world. And if she doesn’t know what to do in a certain situation, Dr. Suwalski’s collection is happy to provide. It’s an impressively filled out collection, and though, as I said, it doesn’t give dating advice (that’s another $500 set), it gives an enough information to make sure dates can start. So Bo-Na starts using everybody she can, and she develops something of a relationship and starts to get ahead in her career as well.
The tape series, called “How to Use Guys with Secret Tips,” are really what make the film stand out. (Note that the literal title of the film is Male Instruction Manual, which is much easier to say but gives a very different vibe.) I don’t know that it’s the most original idea in the world, but in execution I’ve never seen anything like it. Part of that is certainly the underlying Korean-ness (a vague concept required by the investors), but more of it comes from the fact that director Lee Won-Suk is not just another film director. He’s a really, really interesting guy (my interview with him will hopefully be posted next week sometime) with a fascinating history, and his American film tutelage almost killed his chances of working in the Korean film industry. But that background, as well as a love of both experimental and narrative film, combined with the romcom sensibilities of co-writer Noh Hye-Young, creates something that is truly unique.
Whenever I heard Dr. Suwalski say something, I wanted to shout, “No! Don’t tell them that! That’s a secret!”I mean, what if my girlfriend saw this? I would have nothing left. I would just be a sad husk of a person being twisted and pulled by feminine wiles. And while I’m being somewhat facetious, I really did feel like there was an understanding of the way guys actually react to things that a lot of films seem to gloss over. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a man introducing these tips, rather than a woman with some sketchy motives, that makes the whole thing feel more real while feeling completely insane and unreal at the same time. Maybe it’s the bizarre Caucasian couple acting out how to look and smile before giving a hearty thumbs up. It’s a combination of all these things and more.
At any given moment, the characters are probably doing something typical (pining after one another, chasing after one another, running naked around a crowded pool area while a small child hits them), but at the time it feels different. It may be a romantic comedy, but it doesn’t really want to. It’s really more of a straight comedy with some romantic stylings (where Very Ordinary Couple is a romance with comedic stylings), which makes sense, because Lee Won-Suk doesn’t actually like romantic comedies very much.
The film changed dramatically from his first vision, which was a black comedy centered around characters in a training manual who become self-aware, but there are bits and pieces of the old story that remain. The big Buster Keaton-esque moment in the climax, for example, was a holdover and meant something much different in its original context. But even without the meaning (or the visual splendor that the script actually called for), it’s still a great moment in a movie chock full of them. Whenever the story threatens to be anything other than amazing, there’s always another bizarre introduction and tip by Dr. Suwalski around the corner. The music also keeps things interesting, featuring some impressively faked Morricone and a whole lot more (fun fact: Lee Won-Suk used to be a DJ).
How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is a fantastic film, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s a debut. I really hope that it finds some success at home and abroad, and that Lee Won-Suk’s next project (which will be more commercial, something I’ll be discussing in my upcoming review of Secretly Greatly) does as well. I want the man to have a great career making films that show up at the New York Asian Film Festival or the New York Korean Film Festival or even just show up in regular theaters and make me feel like I’ve just experienced something amazing. He wants to be like Kim Jee-Woon, his friend and my favorite director.
And you know what? He’s off to a damn good start.