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How to Use Guys with Secret Tips
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by Jay Seaver

"No secret that this is a great deal of fun."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As much as the sort of candy-colored romantic comedies that make it into this sort of festival can be little more than silly, they're some of my favorite parts, a nice break from darkness and violence while sill being fun things that Hollywood just doesn't produce. They aren't always good, but this one, "How to Use Guys with Secret Tips", is a little gem: The jokes are darn funny, the cast of characters is enjoyably eccentric, and the bright colors and tangent-filled storytelling give it a great screwball energy.

It follows Choi Bo-na (Lee Si-young), a hard-working assistant director for a company that produces television commercials, the sort putting in so many hours for director Yook Bong-a (Lee Won-jong) as to be both essential and constantly overlooked. That she tends to dress in shapeless hooded sweatshirts doesn't help. After getting left behind on a shoot with demanding actor Lee Seung-jae (Oh Jung-se) because she's getting stuff done, she comes upon a man selling old videotapes at a newsstand, including a multi-tape set called "How to Use Guys with Secret Tips". The things Dr. Suwalski (Park Young-gyu) suggests strike her as silly and kind of sexist, but when trying one gets her out of hot water, she decides to see just how far they can take her.

The first thing this movie reminded me of was 200 Pounds Beauty, another Korean comedy where a thoroughly winning lead performance did a great deal to counter some of the questionable thinking in the premise (in that case, finding success through extreme cosmetic surgery), but this one is better in almost every way. It uses the fourth-wall breaking goofiness of its dated self-help tapes to playfully mock the idea that men can be so easily manipulated, but staying just grounded enough to also have fun with the reality of how sometimes these small, superficial behaviors actually can have a big effect on people. When properly balanced - which is most of the time - it's an empowerment fantasy with some barbs on it.

Even when the jokes aren't directly serving the main premise, they're pretty good. Director Lee Won-suk and co-writer Noh Hye-young make sure that just about every character in their comedy is, in some way, funny, and the people we see the most often are odd enough that the audience is eventually primed to laugh just from them appearing on-screen. There's a segment in the middle where everyone involved does a fairly amazing job of building a joke up even when it starts in a big, absurd place and making the payoff not feel like a step down. Recurring bits like the not-very-good actors demonstrating each tape's lesson almost always work, and the way they bleed into reality is generally weird but funny.

Most of all, Lee Si-young is fantastic: Yes, she's cute as anything, to the point where the audience might almost feel the need to concoct some sort of backstory to explain why Bo-na has apparently never flirted before. She's also genuinely funny, diving into the broad gags and selling every one of them, but she also gets across the slight disgust Bo-na feels resorting to these sort of feminine wiles to get ahead. She's able to make Bo-na a heroine that it's very easy to root for even when she's doing something kind of awful.

That's kind of what Oh Jung-se is doing, too, making Seung-jae just enough of an arrogant jerk that it's easy to enjoy how Bo-na starts outright using him, but sneaking in just enough humanity to become sympathetic and let some romance happen. Meanwhile, Park Young-gyu is remarkably dry as the self-help guru/con-man we see on the tape - always welcome. Lee Won-jong gives an amusingly strange performance as Bo-na's weird boss, and Kim Joon-sung is fun in the last act as the effortlessly smooth actor that an increasingly loopy Seung-jae views as his nemesis (plus, his speaking English - a common trope to make someone in Asian movies look suave and worldly - actually sounds like someone speaking English).

These characters are given a bright, heightened world to play in, full of bright solid colors and memorable costumes, even when director Kim is trying to play up sophistication. It's got a brief moment of being sincere as opposed to funny, but the bulk is funny, cheerful, and romantic without making finding a man the most important thing in Bo-na's life. That's the sort of romantic comedy you're happy to find at any time, from any place.

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originally posted: 08/24/13 13:22:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Won-suk Lee

Written by
  Won-suk Lee
  Hye-Young Noh

  Si-Young Lee
  Jung-se Oh
  Young-Gyu Park
  Jung-Tae Kim
  Won-Jong Lee

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