masterly master lee

a home for forgotten and famous korean pulp, its heroes, its heroines, and its pulpeteers

Girl Scouts 걸스카우트 2008 review

The Master just saw the movie Girl Scouts (2008) and he was impressed. No, boys and girls, despite the title, this is not a seedy movie about barely legal pretty girls strutting their stuff and doing naughty things with balding, fat males. This is an action comedy (a genre the  Master usually doesn’t have time for) about four women who get swindled out of significant amounts of money (needed among other things to pay for the surgery of a young son) and decide to chase the culprit (pretty hairdresser cum swindling femme fatale Im Ji-Eun 임지은 who looks suitably sexy-vulgar here, ready to do anything to get her way) themselves. Despite the fairly commonplace starting point and the restrictions of its genre, Girl Scouts develops into an intelligent, well-written and well-acted movie that manages to keep the Hollywood glamour out (well, not entirely) and deliver a celebration of the strength, attractiveness and intelligence of hard-working South Korean women.

Pretty Kim Seon-A 김선아 stars as the leader of the four very different women. Driving around a school bus and blessed with an unemployed, depressed and lazy husband, she is responsible for the well-being of her young daughter. She is joined in her chase of the evil hairdresser by (almost) legendary actress Nam Mun-Heui 남문희 who plays a passive older woman, constantly abused by her son and stuck in a dead-end supermarket job. Yi Gyeong-Shil 이경실  (originally South Korea’s top female comedian, but as it turns out a very competent actress as well) stars as a perpetually tired mother of two, short of the money she desperately needs to pay for her son’s surgery. The Scooby Doo-gang is completed by Ko Jun-Hee 고준희, a pretty young girl with, again, no money, but lots of ambition to make it as a golf pro (although she just got kicked off the golf course and her finger broken for not paying her fees). When their friendly neighbourhood hairdresser runs off with their collective savings and the police isn’t overly interested in helping them, they hop in the yellow school bus (can you say Scooby Doo van?) and go after the money.

The evil hairdresser is (not so) ably assisted by a gangster (Pak Weon-Sang 박원상) who truly makes the best of this character. Only rarely has a better gangster been played in a movie such as this one. Pak curses, hits, kicks and screams and then turns on his peculiar brand of hoodlum charm again, only to be on the receiving end of a lot of physical abuse time after time. Also after the money is classy debt collector Ryu Tae-Jun 류태준. Ryu, who looks like he stepped right out of a Elmore Leonard novel,  is a revelation as a bad guy with a bit of a conscience and a lot of bloodymindedness. Originally sent to recover the missing funds by a shady businessman, he goes his own way, alternately harassing the four women or beating up gangster Pak Weon-Sang.

Although the Master thinks that this is clearly a mainstream movie, the intelligent script is wary of plot turns that are too easy (except for the end perhaps). Helped by the excellent acting, the script delivers a chase that is about more than the money: this is about the lives of the four women. They are portrayed as strong, funny and attractive, but not in the Desperate Housewives mould of perfectly groomed trophy wives with surgically enhanced eyes, lips and bosoms. And although the Master has the sneaky suspicion that Kim Seon-A’s breasts may not be completely natural and Ko Chun-Hee’s eyes certainly are not, the four women come across as completely authentic. As the chase wears on, they start to look ragged, unkempt, unglamorous and become tired, exhausted, argumentative and petty. The contrast with the well-groomed hairdresser and the women working in the restaurants and bars she frequents, couldn’t be greater and is in fact skillfully exploited by the director to strengthen the impression the audience receives from the four protagonists.  This movie works not only because the acting is excellent, but more importantly because this is an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of what the lives of four average women in South Korea are like. This is all the more impressive, since it has been done by using the vehicle of the action comedy, not a genre given to sensitive depictions but rather prone to insensitivity, exaggeration and fun at the expense of others.

Talking about vehicles, be sure to watch the dancing scene on the roof of the van twice. The dancing (in a touring coach or while camping out and roasting meat) of middle-aged women in South Korea is a cultural phenomenon (Bong Jun-ho’s Mother 마더 has a thing or two to say about this) and this scene shows some of its background. It also shows how the movie is alive to these cultural patterns that, in the right directorial hands, say so much about contemporary life in South Korea.

Kudos to the team behind Girl Scouts for casting the voluptuous Kim Seon-A, without for even one moment exploiting her sexy image. Her character is attractive, to be sure, but not because the Master knows she’s a very sexy actress outside of this movie. Inside the movie, she doesn’t resemble her public big-breasted persona at all. She is a determined woman, mother of a young daughter, and desperate to retrieve the money she needs. This makes her attractive and gives her strength, but at the same time it operates as a divisive force between the four women, who are all desperate and feel compelled to prioritize their own needs (or those of their children) over those of the others. No easy sisterhood movie then this is (thank you, Master Yoda). For as much as the genre allows, this is a movie that sincerely tries to draw a complex and delicate picture of these four women and the way they negotiate life and each other. It does so, moreover, without reverting to the cliched image of Korean women of a certain age (아준마) as egotistical go-getters who can’t be bothered to care about people outside of their own family. And it does so with a lot of ass-whooping, ball-kneeing, hitting, punching and chasing. Everything the Master likes, then, and some more.

Girl Scouts is a terrific movie that shows how four women handle everything life throws at them. They catch it and throw it right back. You’d better duck, Master Lee  suggests. He likes the movie and loves its four heroines who’d have no problem opening a can of whoop-ass on most of the thugs the Master has met.

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