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Miss Granny
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by Jay Seaver

"Old jokes in a cute young package."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Sitting down for "Miss Granny", I had a horrible fear - what if this was "200 Pounds Beauty" again? The template, right down to the newly-cute protagonist becoming a singer, was sort of the same, and it certainly had the chance to play into cruel stereotypes even if it wasn't quite so wrong-headed as building a better life through plastic surgery. The idea further solidified as Shim Eun-kyung proceeded to be just terrific in a potentially disastrous role. Fortunately, this Cinderella story manages to be funny without much in the way of guilt attached.

When it starts, Oh Mal-soon (Na Moon-hee) is the very picture of an ajumma, a stereotypical granny with a sharp tongue, a tight purse, hair permed like broccoli, and a lot more fondness for her son Hyun-chul (Sung Dong-il), a professor of elder studies, than his wife Ae-ja (Hwang Jung-min). She works in a seniors' cafe with lifelong friend Mr. Park (Park In-hwan), oblivious to how he thinks about her. When Ae-ja falls ill in part due to the stress Mal-soon puts on her, there's talk of finding a home for her, which is when she finds the "Forever Young" photography studio, whose proprietor promises to take fifty years off her - and does, giving her the face and body she had before her son was born. Unable to go home, "Oh Doo-ri" (Shim Eun-kyung) rents a room at Mr. Park's house, and when grandson Ji-ha (Jin Young) loses his band's lead singer, she winds up joining, which eventually grabs the attention of Seung-woo (Lee Jin-wook), the producer of a popular televised music series.

The movie tends to back off from the really questionable issues and goes for the big joke most of the time, even as it has fun with Ji-ha's unknowing infatuation. Part of it is how, like the character itself, the movie is tart but not really mean: Director Hwang Dong-hyuk and the team of writers get that Oh looking like a sort of hipster pixie in her 1960s-inspired outfits is funny and a bit ironic but not really a target to be made sport of, so the audience can laugh at the idea when it hits them without it being beaten into the ground (or maybe this is an American pop culture thing that I'm projecting onto a Korean film). The last act softens up a bit to play with the idea of assimilation as well as just oddity, and does it well enough that I might have enjoyed a more thoughtful comedy which played on the idea of new and old identities in addition to gags about an old lady in a young body, especially since the measures that the script takes to avoid it are kind of drastic.

Instead, it's funny almost from start to end, and a big part of it is Shim Eun-kyung's performance. She and the filmmakers do a great job of figuring out just how far to push things so that the gag is obvious and funny but also has a clever bit of truth in it; watch how she retains hints of how Oh Doo-ri is used to shuffling without looking ridiculous, playing into stereotypes without going overboard. It's often a broad performance, full of double-takes and a sort of pushiness that isn't quite the same sort that a regular young girl who knows she's pretty might have- very broad, considering the grammar that the subtitles have her using - but not in all the ways one might expect: The sweetness is doled out stingily, although there's enough there for the character to not seem entirely like a monster even when she's carried away.

The rest of the cast is funny, too, with Na Moon-hee doing a fine job of not just demonstrating the template that Shim is going to imitate but getting laughs from cracking wise as well; she's probably played a part similar to this in a lot of supporting roles in recent years and has no trouble making it work while she's the lead. Park In-hwan gets some of the bigger, goofier laughs as the emphasis-on-old friend trying to keep up with the revitalized Doo-ri, and few of the gags fall flat. Jin Young does well in keeping the running joke about how Ji-ha both resembles his grandfather and finds himself drawn to the band's pretty new lead singer from not getting too uncomfortable to be funny, and quietly handles the secondary story about Ji-ha becoming his own man well too. It kind of makes Lee Jin-wook a bit redundant as the record producer who also finds himself attracted to Doo-ri without knowing her whole deal, though, and the writers seem to have even less idea what to do with some of the other characters. On the other hand, there's apparently a very funny cameo at the end that I don't know my Korean heartthrobs well enough to really get.

I suspect that's not the only part of this movie that would be even funnier for those with a more solid understanding of Korean pop culture; as much as I kind of dig the music that Ji-ha's band makes as their initial incarnation that looks KISS-inspired is softened by Doo-ri's influence (it becomes pretty catchy!), the gag behind the various musical styles is a bit lost on me. Similarly, there are a couple of lines that liked more for their delivery than the reference - was fathers shaving their rebellious daughters' heads a thing in 1960s Korea? Still, that Shim Eun-kyung gets a pretty big laugh from that line is a good barometer of how good Hwang and company do at making a constant string of jokes hit. Unlike a lot of today's comedies, this one is trying to hit a sixty-year age spread, and given that it could get big laughs from an audience in North America, I'm guessing that the filmmakers did all right in making something that plays to a broad audience back home.

I laughed, and given how successful this is in Korea, I figure a sequel is probably inevitable, no matter what plot gymnastics are necessary to make it happen. An English-language remake wouldn't be a bad idea, either, given how specific some of the jokes are. I'll see both, but in case neither happens, I'd recommend this one. It's a simple idea, but it works even with its great off-the-rails potential.

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originally posted: 09/07/14 07:05:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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