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Crush and Blush
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by Jay Seaver

"This lady really never got past high school."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a lesson to be learned from "Crush and Blush", perhaps several. The first is that if you had a rough time in high school, it might not be a great idea to go back there unless you are absolutely 100% sure that you've put all those issues behind you. The second is that everything which women do to drive men crazy is only a small fraction of what they do to each other.

Take Yang Me-sook (Kong Hyo-jin). This plain-looking woman of 29 is teaching Russian at her old high school, still nursing a crush on fellow teacher Suh Jong-chul (Lee Jong-hyeok) that carries over from her own days there. He doesn't return those feelings, but he's no saint; gallingly, he's got eyes for Lee Yu-ri (Hwang Woo-seul-hye), a prettier, younger, sweeter girl who also teaches Russian. The school doesn't actually need two Russian teachers, so Me-sook is reassigned to teaching English (which she doesn't know) in the Junior High. This does allow her to befriend Jong-chul's daughter Jong-hee (Seo Woo), and they resolve to work together to break Jong-chul and Yu-ri up - though Me-sook is not nearly as interested in saving Jong-chul's marriage as Jong-hee is.

Crush and Blush is very funny - frequently hilarious - but it is seldom a good-natured sort of humor. Instead, it's often flat-out mean, wringing comedy from nasty things happening to good people. It mocks the delusions of the less-popular underdogs. The movie often plays like a screwball comedy where the characters have malicious intent, and the victims are, for all their innocence, a little hard to feel for. Writer/director Lee Kyoung-mi walks a very thin line, creating just enough motivation that her characters don't come off as monsters, but doing so in a ways as to give them only the slightest bits of sympathy.

She couldn't do that without an outstanding performance by Kong Hyo-jin. Her Yang Me-sook narrates the story, so she gets first crack at explaining her point of view to us, and that explains part of why we can at times fall into the trap of finding her put-upon. More important is that even when she's being two-faced, she doesn't seem it. Oh, she doesn't project a pleasant sincerity; she just always seems short-tempered and overwhelmed. There's never any doubt in our mind that Me-sook feels like she's the victim in all of this, and as whiny and unpleasant as she can be, there's enough utter conviction to her feelings (and enough instances of her being treated badly) that we are forced to at least consider her as something other than a monster.

Of course, the man she is intent on pursuing isn't worth it. Lee Jong-hyeok breathes just enough life into Jong-chul that we can see the attraction for both Me-sook and Yu-ri, but there's not a whole lot there. The gems are the other women in the cast: Hwang Woo-seul-hye is a comic standout as Yu-ri, so sweet, trusting, and friendly that she simply can't conceive that Me-sook would despise her for her very existence. She plays a bit slow on the uptake without being laughably ignorant, and builds a personality that convinces us she may be unlucky in love despite our reaction likely being along the same lines as Me-sook's, that she can have her pick of men and has no reason to complain.

Then there's Seo Woo, whose Jong-hee is just a mess. She's one of those kids who just isn't good at anything in particular and has no good response for getting picked on. There's a bit of desperation to her when she yells back at her tormentors. She shows this desperate faith in Me-sook even though the teacher is in no way exempt from the distrust she has for any adult and hostility toward the world at large. It's a teenager that is too much to deal with, but must be handled carefully, as she's at a stage where she could wind up really messed up.

First-time director Lee Kyoung-mi has some major league collaborators - Park Chan-wook is listed as a producer, and Bong Joon-ho shows up in a cameo - but she's got plenty of skills of her own. She's particularly good at letting loose with sharp, often broad comedy without making her characters feel less real; she will earn any emotional resolution that happens by the end. Her writing could perhaps use a little work - there's a subplot about Me-sook joining a dance class run by Mrs. Suh under Yu-ri's name that is confusing and doesn't go very far, and the last act is talky in a rather formal way.

Even that bit that could be better is still cleverly conceived. The movie may lose a bit of sting at points, but on the whole still delivers plenty of black comedy under the guise of sisterhood.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18993&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/25/09 11:56:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Lee Kyoung-mi

Written by
  Lee Kyoung-mi
  Park Chan-wook
  Park Eun-kyo

Cast
  Kong Hyo-Jin



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