20TH CENTURY GIRL (2022)
Netflix’s latest is a nostalgic throwback to Korean rom-coms of yesteryear, as high school girls in 1999 pursues their crushes
Trevor Treharne, Busan International Film Festival 2022, 12 October
Set in 1999 itself, ‘20th Century Girl’ is the latest K-Romance to wheel its way onto streaming giant Netflix’s platform, and is an homage to a prolific era of such young love flicks from Korea.
After years of ‘My Sassy Girl’ (2001) remakes and rehashes, a very common formula is ventured here again, with affable and accessible results in the process. It will nestle alongside the more recent likes of ‘Be With You’ (2018), ‘On Your Wedding Day’ (2018) and ‘Tune in for Love’ (2019), all works where Netflix’s detailed analytics is acutely aware of their appeal.
‘20th Century Girl’ unapologetically “plays the hits” in terms of Korean rom-coms. Jealousy, loss and embarrassment all get their screen time here. A litany of heart-string pulling tricks are ‘ta-da-ed’ from the romance genre magic hat.
Yeondu (Noh Yoon-seo) has heart problems and must travel to the US for surgery. While she is away she asks her best friend Bora (Kim You-jung) to collect all the information she can about a boy she likes, Baek Hyunjin (Park Jung-woo).
Bora decides to get close to Baek’s best friend, Pung Woonho (Byeon Woo-seok) to gather intel. Relentless and often unshakable, Bora will do almost anything to gather what she needs for her sick friend. However, as Bora dives into the boys’ worlds, her mission starts to complicate ahead of her friend’s return.
Its 1999 setting, and film title, indicates the dose of twentieth century nostalgia that the film attempts to evoke – emails sent on retro PCs, chasing boys via their pagers. A wild removal from the hyper-connected Korea of today. Bora’s father even runs a video rental store, a location romanticised in recent years as we now find ourselves screen-tied to scrolling through streaming services (and an ironic addition for Netflix – the eventual killer of Blockbusters and similar stores).
The pending turn of a new century is offering hope that unprecedented change is on its way. It almost seems comical to view the fear and hope that leaving 1999 and arriving in 2000 did to people, such angst and optimism shared by our puppy love young characters here.
Kim You-jung does a fine job as the unpredictable Bora, borrowing in parts from Jun Ji-hyun’s even more unruly performance in ‘My Sassy Girl’ (2001). She provides plenty of comedic thrust in a film which, in parts, offers genuine laughs.
Despite the feeling that you are watching something you have seen before, it is hard to avoid such old seductions once again. The wide-eyed young love, the haplessness of inexperience.
Such is Korea’s reputation for excelling in this space, ‘20th Century Girl’ will have few obstacles finding an audience, especially with the global reach Netflix provides. A tranquil and often droll way to spend a couple of hours in the past.