WTF ASIA 7: Please Teach Me English (2003)
Have you tried to learn a new skill when you were way too old to pick it up naturally? Were you pressured into taking up a new skill or hobby? Are you imaginative? Do you have issues with your job? No? Well, I have a movie for you anyways. Please Teach Me English is goofy as all heck. Basically, it addresses the rush to learn English in South Korea during the last decade. Of course, it jams in a romantic comedy in there along with a few other things. And it is highly enjoyable.
Na Young-ju is an entry level public servant who is shy and very awkward, but has a pretty active imagination. Because, you know, some Asians actually are quite imaginative. Anyways, one day an American living in Korea confronts her about an electricity bill. Neither she nor any of her co-workers know what he is saying, and her co-workers pretty much abandon her as she tries to get away from him.
It is decided that someone in the office needs to take English classes, and Young-ju gets picked. She does not want to go, but has little choice. Actually, it seems as if she is the only one who does not want to learn English. She sees everyone on a bus reading or trying to learn English, including someone who memorizes a page and then eats it. Apparently, that is a thing. She sees the words on stores all in English. It seems as if everything is in English. So, maybe it is a good thing that Young-ju learns English.
After filling out andâ€¦ermâ€¦submitting her form andâ€¦taking the proficiency test, she gets placed in the low-level class. She ends up sitting next to Park Mun-su and almost immediately develops a crush on him when he says something almost nice to her about breaking her glasses back when she wasâ€¦submitting her form. Mun-su, it seems, though, has no interest in herâ€¦or the three or four pretty attractive girls who sit near the back of the class and never talk (and eventually disappear from the movie altogether). Nope, he is smitten with the English Teacher, Cathy Presley, who was alsoâ€¦there when Young-ju was submitting her form.
Cathy almost immediately starts off on the wrong foot with the class, but does not seem to notice it. First off, she is Australian, which is not in itself bad, but I remember living in Australia in 2002 and I remember that my Korean housemate wanted to learn English from ME. Secondly, she tries to impress the students with her grasp on the Korean language, but ends up saying some offensive things without realizing it. Nothing about anyoneâ€™s mother kissing goats, but bad in a more subtle way where you might not know whether she made a mistake or actually meant it. By the way, should I have mentioned that she is White or did you already assume that? Thirdly, she acts coldly towards Young-ju for refusing to choose an English name for herself. Fourthly, she is only critical of the studentsâ€™ efforts, pointing out only where they messed up, even when most of what they said was correct. Perhaps she believes that Asians expect strict teachers, but they almost all start resenting her. Gradually, it begins to seem as if only Mun-su likes her, but only because he likes her. And he is pretty blatant, saying â€œgorgeousâ€¦equalsâ€¦Cathyâ€ and asking for her â€œhandphone numberâ€.
Through following Mun-su outside of class, we learn that he is a shoe-salesman, working at the mall where his mother is a janitor. He fancies himself to be a â€œplayerâ€, but is kind of a dork, and his mother berates him for acting just like his father did before abandoning the family. Mun-su is in English class for two reasons. The first is that he believes that English sounds more romantic than Korean, and will help him score with the ladies. The second is that his sister, who had been put up for adoption as a baby when their father abandoned the family, is finally visiting Korea, and she speaks only English.
While Mun-su (or Elvis, due to his sideburnsâ€¦but also probably because of Cathyâ€™s last name) flirts shamelessly (and quite badly) with Cathy during class, Young-ju (who eventually chooses the name â€œCandyâ€, which sounds like Cathyâ€¦hmmmmâ€¦) either deliberately or inadvertently keeps slipping that she likes Mun-su. Everyone seems to realize it, but Mun-su tries to ignore it or play it off. He thinks of her as plain or â€œnormalâ€, as it gets translated. Of course, upon learning that Mun-su will only love a woman whom he could declare his love to in English, she becomes determined to learn English. This is because, as Oz: The Great and Powerful has taught us, the need of a manâ€™s love is the only reason why women do anything.
I was not kidding when I said that this movie was goofy. Part of it is due to the characters of Young-ju and Mun-su being hopelessly and outwardly awkward in different ways. The other part is due to Young-juâ€™s active imagination. The first minute or so of the movie is an animated sequence of Young-ju sitting on a bench and being kicked by a prince on a horse before getting knocked over by the opening credits. On her bus ride, the English words on the buildings fly out at her. The language proficiency test is a Mortal Kombat-style game. And her actual dream sequences? I am not going to even go into those, because they are too good. They are sort of a cross between movie dream sequences and actual dream sequences, where things work by their own logic. It is amusing how all of the written and spoken English in her dreams is good, though there is more of it in the later ones.
The movie gets a little less goofy during the last third, when the movie remembers that it was billed as a romantic and tries to re-emphasize that aspect, but also brings in Mun-suâ€™s sister Victoria to make things melodramatic for him and his mother. In all honesty, I donâ€™t think that the romance aspect of the movie works, simply because it suddenly shifts from going nowhere into high gear for reasons that are unclear. The adoption storyline also is undercooked and not helped bad direction and acting on the part of the sister. But, neither of those things is the reason I watched the movie in the first place, so I didnâ€™t mind their flawed treatment. I watched for the silliness, and while it is less pronounced in the last third, it is still there. Also, the last third does have one of my favorite cheap gags as Young-ju walks right into a lamp post. Or telephone pole. Well, something. It is not that she hits the lamp post that made me laugh, but the fact that she saw it in front of her a full second before she walked into it. She screams but makes no attempt to stop or put up her hands. Perhaps it is just as well as the last third of the movie is less goofy, as the movie would have either had to accelerate the goofiness to an unbearable extreme or do what it did and let the viewer relax a little.
In a sense, the comedy, the romance, the social commentary, and the filming style remind me of Korean television comedy dramas. The difference here is that the movie tells the story in under two hours, whereas a Korean television show would have between fifteen and thirty hours to tell the story, if not more. So, while the romantic aspect and the adoptee aspect might have gotten more attention in a television show, the show would have probably dragged out everything well beyond the point of my patience. The pacing of Korean television shows is one of the main reasons why I got frustrated watching them. This movie may be a little rushed, but at least it does not make twenty-four episodes seem like an eternity.
I may have briefly touched upon this before, but this is probably the best place for me to talk about the English language and English-speaking actors (usually White) in Asian movies. With one major exception that I have not posted about yet, the English language in Indian movies tends to sound natural, even if highly accented. The English in Asian movies from other countries, however, often sounds unnatural and, on occasion, is just plain bad. This could be because the actors donâ€™t actually know English and are reciting their lines phonetically or are simply dubbed over by your standard dubbing voice actor. Sometimes, the scriptwriter doesnâ€™t know English and has the characters speak stupid lines as if they make perfect sense. But I get the impression that, particularly with English-speaking actors, it is due to either the director not being able to directly communicate with them, or maybe the director has too many preconceived notions of how White people act, or maybe the actors are not used to working in this film industry, or maybe they are just not good actors. Sometimes, even actors whom I have seen do good work in Western works fare poorly in Asian movies. Even in Indian films where almost all of the Indian characters alternate between English and Hindi as if it were perfectly natural, the White characters often come across awkwardly when they speakâ€¦or do anything else.
I often cringe whenever I see a White person (sometimes Black) in an Asian film in preparation for being really embarrassed on their behalf. Again, there exceptions (has anyone seen Flowers of War with Christian Bale?), but according to my experience as a viewer, that is what they are: exceptions. It has been like this for decades and has not really improved as far as I can tell. Then again, have you heard Indian Jones speak German? It is awful. So it is not as if Hollywood or the English-speaking film industries are any better in this regard…or concerning race, for that matter. I am just saying that, when it is your language, you tend to notice it. And in watching Asian movies, I have noticed it a lot.
Please Teach Me English is probably not meant to be for me. Sure, I may laugh at the mangled English, but I may not find that stuff to be funny in the same way that a person who has struggled the same way these characters struggle would find it funny. There is a Flight of the Conchords song that has lyrics made up almost completely out of words and phrases from entry-level French. A native French speaker might find that simple and badly-accented French funny, but not in the same way as would someone who took entry-level French. So, in this movie, the actual use of English is not as important as the struggle and the all-consuming presence of it. Basically, though there is more English (both good and bad) in this movie than in the majority of other Asian movies that I have seen, there is not much effort to make the English sound more believable to native English speakers than most other Asian movies.
And some of the English-speaking characters here are not good. The lines themselves may be fine, but not the people speaking them. The man at the beginning complaining about his bill sounds like some amateur internet actor. The little Korean girl who criticizes Young-ju about her English is obviously dubbed over and sounds like she is on Sesame Street or some childrenâ€™s show. The older White couple at the end who had like two lines–they are just awful. And sister Victoriaâ€¦okay, she sounds fluent in English (which is more than I can say for the character in a certain television show who was supposed to have been brought up in America), but she does not sound like a native speaker, unless that is some sort of weird West Coast accent that she has. Plus, she is a horrible actress working with horrible lines. Maybe if this movie had been made a few years later, it could have snagged some Korean-American girl group K-pop star to play the role. She may not have been able to act that well, but she would have been no worse than this woman, and would have sounded like a native speaker. Fortunately, Victoriaâ€™s time in the movie is brief.
There is one person in this movie whom I would label as an exception: the character of Cathy. That is good, because she is in the movie quite a bit. No, not good. Great. As a character, she is quite unlikeable at first, but eventually mellows out, switches up her teaching style a bit, and actually bonds with Young-ju a bit. While I would not go as far as to say that the actress did an excellent job in the role (she is a little stilted at times, but this is not a movie for award-winning performances anyways), she was competent enough that I bought her as an English speaker AND as a person. She may sound awkward speaking Korean, but not when speaking English. And even when she was unlikeable, I still bought her as a person. Those may sound like backhanded compliments, but given what I have said in the previous paragraphs, it is definitely something. While I suppose that it was not necessary for the Korean audience for the character to be handled moderately well, it would have made the movie really frustrating for me if she was treated as just the typical White character in an Asian film, and I am glad that she was not. There is a lot of stupidity in this film, but if Cathy were portrayed or presented in the normal Asian style, it would have been a step too far for me. As it is, it works and it allows me to enjoy the rest of the movie.
If you are looking for a romantic comedy, a drama about American adoptees returning to Korea, a clever satire on the English craze in South Korea, or a movie that deserves to win any type of award, then you will probably be disappointed in this movie. If you are willing to just sit back and let the movie take you wherever it wants to take you, then you just might have a really good time. A really good time. If you want something silly, this is definitely silly. And if you had to struggle learning English at some point, you might find something in this that you can identify with. Would I have changed some things? Sure, but most of that would be solely for my benefit as a native English speaker. And that is hardly fair. Taken on its own merits, I find it to be highly enjoyable. And highly recommendable.
Next time: No One Killed Jessica (India: 2011, approx. 135 minutes)
Time after next: Magnifico (Philippines: 2003, approx. 125 minutes)