It's a Japanese film from a Korean director. I'm not complaining. His name's Jae-young Kwak and he first made his mark with My Sassy Girl (2001), which sounds like a really good comedy-romance and so in 2008 duly got a bad Hollywood remake. His other movies include Classic (2003), Windstruck (2004) and My Mighty Princess (2008), the last of which (unusually for him) isn't predominantly a romance, but instead a martial arts movie.
Understandably all his other films are in Korean. Presumably he here felt like trying something new. Thus we have a Terminator-like cyborg from Cyberdyne Systems (no, really) who time-travels back to 2008 in order to... um, become some loser's girlfriend. Disappointed? Well, she's played by Haruka Ayase, so all things considered I think we're ahead. Apart from her, though, the important thing to note here is that if you've ever watched any anime, you'll probably be thinking that this story sounds familiar. You could go blue in the face listing "robot girl" shows, e.g. Saber Marionette
, Hand Maid May
, Steel Angel Kurumi
, Cutey Honey
, Key the Metal Idol
and All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku
. Then on top of that we're also in the land of "magical girlfriend", i.e. anything from hot female aliens (Urusei Yatsura
) to hot female deities (Oh My Goddess
). This film isn't a manga adaptation, surprisingly, but it certainly feels like one.
It obeys the anime rules. A magical girlfriend will be super-cute but hard to live with, thanks to her scary habits, personality defects and psychotic enemies. She won't understand humans, but this will be because she's from another dimension, planet, time or species. Is that true here? You bet your shiny booties. Admittedly Ayase doesn't have anyone trying to kill her, but she's got the personality defects down pat. She'll steal like a kleptomaniac, kill and cook your pet, destroy indestructible things and use her superpowers in public. Even a toddler eating its dinner in the restaurant isn't safe from her. Another anime character trait is her ability to eat mountains of food. In other words she's a nightmare, but in her own way she's trying to do good and every so often she does save lives.
A more fundamental anime-like factor is the way emotion trumps plot. Ayase has super-speed, except when it gets forgotten about for the diabolus ex machina ending because the script wants to drop buildings on her. My theory is that her earlier super-reactions had been partly the results of programmed foreknowledge. Similarly bad stuff will happen for no reason except that it's time for Ayase to do something heroic, such as that hostage-taking psycho at the school. That went on a bit long, although you've got to love the way she eventually nails him. That's... um, direct. However the flip side of all this is that the script's always very clear on the emotional logic. I also admired the ending, in which Kwak did the obvious predictable thing and then did something utterly anime by tacking on two or three additional twists that proved me wrong on at least one major plot point.
Then there's the opening. At first I merely thought I knew where that was going. Then I realised Kwak knew that I knew and that he understood the rules of its genre and I could trust him not to reinvent the wheel.
Then you've got all the gags, of which a few of which I found too broad. A cook falls down a manhole, or a man sees something unbelievable and looks at his bottle of alcohol. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about. Still more annoying was Naoto Takenaka, who seems to be in almost all the films I watch these days and yet isn't normally this manic. What's wrong with him? He's like a performing flea. Seriously, he'd have damaged the film for me if his role hadn't basically been a cameo. The strange thing about all this is that the film isn't even a comedy, but instead a rather fascinating pseudo-romance between two ill-matched people. It just also happens to contain lots of gags. However that said, the film somehow (goodness knows how) manages to keep a grip on its tone and have a respectable hit rate with its jokes, despite the occasional dud. I laughed. Keisuke Koide as the wimp boyfriend finds a lot of fun and personality in his role, while I already knew from Oppai Volleyball
that Ayase can do comedy. Koide's delivery of "sex" is hilarious, for instance, while I laughed like an idiot at Ayase drinking alcohol and losing control of her motor functions.
Essentially, as you'd get in the anime version, you're being won over with charm and likeable characters. Making you laugh isn't the aim, but instead more of a bonus.
The two leads carry the film really well. Keisuke Koide is excellent. He's a wimp, yes, but a lovable one and he makes himself the lynchpin of the movie. It's Haruka Ayase who's doing all the eye-catching weird stuff, but it's Koide's reactions that give it context and make it funny. Meanwhile Ayase is doing some admirable physical work, really inhabiting her character and finding all kinds of surprising things to do with body language. She's successfully doing a sort of Schwarzenegger, but that's only the start of it. Look at the way she finds the joke in grabbing Koide's arm and skipping like a girl, for instance. She could make me laugh just by crossing a road. Admittedly I wasn't wild about her dyed hair or eye make-up, but that's hardly her fault. Together this two are charming and always enjoyable to watch, which is the crucial ingredient in a romance. There was plenty of room for either of them to ruin this film, but both of them nail it and the results are really rather nice.
Don't misunderstand me, though. I enjoyed watching both actors, but they're not threatening greatness. Ayase for instance has a big speech near the beginning of the film that I'm sure she'd do better in ten years' time, but there was never going to be any easy way around the challenge of her character's emotionlessness. How should that work? Where should you be pitching it? Ayase's Terminator has sentience but no emotional inner life. She may look cute, but fundamentally she's a piece of machinery with the self-awareness of a petrol pump. This is a valid choice that she carries through with clarity and consistency, but I think it's what's to blame for at least one critical scene falling a little flat. I don't blame anyone, though. That's the story they're telling. They could have cheated and they didn't. I respect that.
Ayase makes for a surprisingly good Terminator, oddly enough. I might back her against Arnie and it wouldn't even be a walkover against the liquid metal ones. Her secret weapon is super-speed, which she uses in little bursts. Ayase learned karate for this film, you know. Unfortunately there's some lame CGI in here too, usually for the shots of her hitting someone through the air like a cannonball, but overall it's a pretty good imitation of the real thing. There's even a time-travelling materialisation, although regrettably it doesn't show Ayase naked but instead wearing a cyborg bodysuit. Kwak, you missed your opportunity!
This film's most anime-like factor though is its good-heartedness. It's wholehearted in a goofy but utterly sincere way, as with for instance the angle that the lives Ayase saves are people who should have died according to history. I found that surprisingly affecting. The finale at first I thought didn't work emotionally, then Kwak took it further and I eventually decided that it did. The film's a bit mad, especially the last ten minutes, but that's a good thing. It has flaws, but they're so daft that they're almost endearing, e.g. the worst old age make-up in the history of cinema, or Cyborg Girl's laughable technique for protecting Koide from machine-gun bullets.
Overall, I liked it. It's in no way flawless, but it has two very likeable leads. Koide spends a lot of time looking like a slapped fish, but he's really good at it and he made me laugh when he walked into a lamp-post. As for Haruka Ayase, she's still my favourite ex-bikini model. Apparently it's the third in Jae-young Kwak's trio of Sassy Girl films along with Windstruck, although it doesn't sound as if this is as good as the original My Sassy Girl, which turned Jun Ji-hyun into an international star and made a big splash in the Korean movie world. Maybe I'll think less of this when I've checked out more of Kwak's work, but today I thought this a sweet, lightweight piece with charming leads and a modest amount of slightly undercooked tragedy. Wouldn't it be cool if they shipped in Haruka Ayase for the fifth official Terminator film?