Sunny (South Korea, 2011)

Nostalgia for the past, both personal as well as collective, is a prominent theme in Kang Hyung-chul’s Sunny. Boiled down to its essentials, the film is equal parts coming-of-age story, high school melodrama, women’s picture, and not to mention the fact that the film revels in “80s fashion and music, an era that was already quite popular with South Korean audiences before the film’s release, but then quickly gained more steam as Sunny won over critics and the general public.

To say that the main reason for the film’s existence was to exploit the public’s love for the bright flashy color palette of the 80’s is reductive thinking though. In fact, Sunny’s box office successes, outgrossing big budget 2011 productions like Sector 7 and My Way, was a surprise for all those involved since the film employs neither special effects or major stars. All the film had in its corner was a talented cast of actors, brilliant editing, and a familiar but heartbreaking story, ingredients that many populist filmmakers who dabble in blockbuster productions have opted to ignore in favor of the cheap thrills that superhero action films and cutesy rom-coms seem to provide.

Although we see the film mainly through the point of view of one character, Na-mi (Shim Eun-Kyung), the story crisscrosses between her high school years in the 1980s and her relatively stable but banal life in 2010, Sunny does not really have a single protagonist. As the title obviously states, the film is about the seven girls who collectively make up Sunny, the high school clique that a young Na-mi becomes a part of. Kang’s film, inspired by the director’s mother who he describes as a “typical housewife”, is ostensibly a tribute to the generation that came of age in the tumultuous “80s, a decade that began with the assassination of then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee, an incident which in turn led to a series of uprisings and conflicts between the military and student-led protest groups, known historically as the Gwangju Uprising then later, the Gwangju Massacre.

Kang doesn’t opt for an easy out though, and instead plunks his characters into a ready-made backdrop of student groups and the Gwangju Uprising. Though set in that era, the film doesn’t have such a narrow purview of South Korea. In the world of Sunny, the historic moments of that decade are in the background, occasionally reminding the audience and characters of the grander narrative going around them, but never intruding and forcing the attention away from the girls in the story. Sunny may be epic in story terms, but it is an intimate story, a tale that has the requisite scenes of first love, heartbreak, friendship, and the occasional fight scene that one finds in many teen dramas.

The high school version of Sunny, consisting of Na-mi, Chun-hwa (Kang So-Ra), Jang-mi (Kim Min-young), Jin-hee (Park Jin-Joo), Geum-ok (Nam Bo-ra), Bok-hee (Kim Bo-mi), and Su-ji (Min Hyo-Rin), are well-defined archetypes. Yet the by-the-books characterization of these characters doesn’t mean that Kang and his co-writer Byung-heon Lee are guilty of lazy or clichéd writing. The film works mainly because the characters are so familiar: their actions may be predictable, but that predictability comes from an honest place. Be it Chun-hwa, the de-facto leader of Sunny, who is the tough take-charge type, Jang-mi, the hefty sidekick, Jin-he, the loud mouth swear machine, Geum-ok, the bookworm with anger management issues, Bok-hee the wannabe princess, Su-ji the pretty but aloof beauty, or finally Na-mi, the awkward artsy type who discovers the confidence to online casino be herself through the collective security of being part of a group. These high school girls seem so real, credit must be given to the actresses playing their respective parts, as well as the screenwriters, that the predictable story beats that occur don’t seem like lazy writing, but as a natural and fluid development of their characters.

Of course, when discussing Kang’s film, one mustn’t forget the visual backdrop of the 1980s, a time when youth culture in South Korea was hungry not just for American pop culture but also American brands, especially as the new middle class began to form. Adidas, Nike, posters of 80s Hollywood blockbusters, and a soundtrack peppered with iconic MTV tunes became social markers for the youth culture back then, just as it does now. Of course, the 1980s on display, although historically accurate, is not completely presented in a documentary-realist style.

Hyung-deok Lee, the film’s DP, captures with his camera the 1980s of Na-mi’s memories, a visually exciting time when Na-mi and her friends still had dreams and were too naïve to realize their limitations. And of course the endless rotation of pop songs from American groups like Cyndi Lauper, Richard Sanderson, and Joy both date the film and give it a dreamy romantic feeling, a stark contrast to the visually dull scenes set in the present day.  These latter day scenes are darker and bathed in shadows due to the fact that these women are dealing with issues that many middle-aged women must come to terms with, specifically the shortcomings of their lives and, in one scene, their own mortality.

Aside from the visuals and soundtrack, Sunny has a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor with the countless self-reflexive nods to the future, be it the tough no-nonsense girl gangs of the eighties as a precursor to the hyper-sexualized K-Pop groups of today or the beginnings of Korea’s tech industry as high school wish fantasy.  Though the film may be saccharine and melodramatic at times, Sunny is a reliable drama and a film that even those who cringe at the phrase “women”s picture” will enjoy.