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[K-Movie Night] Hellcats

Welcome to K-Movie Night — a once-a-month feature where we microwave some popcorn, put on a face mask, and get cozy with a Korean movie from yesteryear. With so many films finally streaming (with subs!), now is the time to get caught up on all those movies we missed featuring our favorite drama actors.

Each month, we’ll pick a flick, write a review, and meet you back here to discuss whether or not it’s worth a watch. Super simple. All you have to do is kick up your feet and join us in the comments!

 
MOVIE REVIEW

This month we’re watching Hellcats (also known by the edgier, and more akin to the Korean, title I Like It Hot), which came on my radar some time ago while running down the list of Kim Min-hee movies that I wanted to watch (because, let’s be real, she’s pretty, talented, funny, and a mega international star — I kind of can’t stay away).

For her role here, she took home two best actress awards in 2008 (at Baeksung and Busan), and the thing I loved about the premise is that it centers on three take-no-shit females of varying ages, each going through their own dating struggles in very different ways. It sounded like a fun way to kick off the spring season, ramp up our energy, and dig deeper into some of the older (but not that old) Korean comedies. Plus, you know it might be a good one when Park Hye-Ryun is on the writing team (yes, that’s right: Castaway Diva, Start Up, While You Were Sleeping, Dream High — the list goes on).

We meet our central protagonist in a messy motel room, where she’s writing a screenplay that she’s been working on for a year. She’s broke, tired, frustrated, and looking for the break that will get her lines of dialogue spoken on the big screen. But she’s on the umpteenth rewrite, thanks to her collaborator — an unknown director who she describes as “a typo in my life.” Well, she certainly has a writer’s sense of humor.

This is KIM AH-MI (Kim Min-hee), a twenty-seven-year-old who lives with her forty-ish sister, KIM YOUNG-MI (Lee Mi-sook), and her high-school-age niece, KIM KANG-AE (Ahn So-hee). Our leading trio is feisty, foulmouthed, and foolhardy in love — and we’re about to follow them on their adventures as they discover that last fact about themselves.

Each woman is dealing with her own struggles when it comes to dating, but really, their discovery of love is tied to exploring their own identities. Young-mi is a single mom (no mention of what happened to Kang-ae’s father) who’s successful in her design career, but shaky about the fact that she’s entering menopause. When she meets a much younger man (yep, there’s a solid noona romance here for anyone who’s keeping score), she’s torn about what it means and who she is.

Young-mi tries to keep her cool-headed control, rejecting the idea of romance. But her paramour, CHOI KYUNG-SOO (Yoon Hee-seok), is a super smitten theater actor who has no qualms about liking her (the minute they meet and shake hands, he says, “Cold hands, burning body” — I mean, yowza). She sleeps with him (repeatedly), only to drop cab fare on the hotel bed and tell him to never mention it at work before walking out the door. She’s conflicted about dating him due to her age, but also fighting her “loss of womanhood” precisely by having sex with him.

Ah-mi is in a totally different set of circumstances, dating a broke musician with a carefree lifestyle, NA WON-SOK (Kim Heung-soo), but dreaming of marriage and money. It’s a conundrum because when she actually goes on a blind date with a guy who ticks all the right boxes, all she can think is, “He’s not my type.”

However, when she finds Won-sok with another woman, she cuts him off, gets drunk, and winds up in the bed of Mr. Blind Date, OH SEUNG-WON (Kim Sung-soo) — an accountant who not only has a lot of money, but is totally taken with her. And Ah-mi, for her part, changes her tune fast when she sees there’s something compelling about dating a man who’s a complete 180 from her last beau.

At first, Ah-mi thinks she’s finally got it made. Seung-won offers stability, marriage, home, and even the time to write. It’s the perfect relationship on paper, so why is she not feeling it? While this storyline starts out the least interesting (maybe because it’s the most common — leaving a loser-ish guy to date a better one), true inner conflict emerges when Ah-mi realizes she’s still attracted to her ex.

And it’s not just that. The more she enters the monied world of Seung-won, the more she sees that she’s getting further away from herself, even as she’s getting closer to what she always thought she wanted. Her struggle to determine what she really values is slight but ultimately profound when she makes a final decision that surprises even her.

The last thread is the most provocative, lovely, and unexpected, but it also gets less depth of attention than the other two. Kang-ae is a high school student who’s been dating her boyfriend for three years with no physical contact. She’s ready to put him in a lip lock, but needs some advice on how to proceed. Luckily, she has a close female friend who’s versed in the strategies of seduction, and the two girls spend their time devising plans for Kang-ae to make her move.

Now, this could have been a clean-cut story about a high school girl blossoming into her sexuality by putting the moves on her boyfriend (rather than waiting around for him), but instead, the film explores coming of age in another way. While the two girls are prepping Kang-ae to be a seductress, Kang-ae leans in and kisses her friend. The friend tries to brush it off at first, thinking Kang-ae just needs someone to practice on, but as the awkward days pass, Kang-ae realizes she’s not so interested in kissing her boyfriend anymore. In fact, she’s only dreaming of her best friend. The conflict is twofold as she tries to understand if she really likes girls, but also fears losing a friendship.

The strength of this movie is that, while it’s not really a comedy, it does take a light approach to some serious themes — making them easier to enter and think about. There’s a sense of loneliness about each of the three storylines, as our trio of women live together, get in chaotic arguments, clearly care for each other, but never address any of the problems they’re having in their personal lives. It’s especially apparent with the mother-daughter relationship, where Kang-ae acts (and is treated) like an equal, and thus left to deal with any tumult she encounters on her own.

The downside is that while a lot of interesting themes are introduced, they play out in somewhat cliched ways. The forty-year-old woman struggling with menopause and acting cold-hearted to an unwavering admirer feels tired right up to the end. We never get to see her growth on camera, or what it might look like to flip her maturity-insecurity on its head by having her care less what people think.

Ah-mi’s process of growth is also not that refreshing, even if the outcome is ultimately satisfying. And Kang-ae’s story, surprised as I was to see it included, deserved more screen time to explore her underlying emotions. Still, I liked how all three storylines resolved, with two out of three having unexpected endings.

And while each thread can exist on its own, the main thing that was missing for me was a sense of deep connection between the three leads. The movie took it as a given that they supported each other just by existing in the same space. But I couldn’t help but wonder if their stresses would feel so heavy — or their wins so shallow — if they could openly confide in each other more. As Ah-mi tells us in the closing lines, “There’s nothing more to life. It’s just moving forward.” True. But in those times when we feel stuck in place, it helps to have besties to share our pain — not just to feel collectively alone with.

Join us in April for the next K-Movie Night and let’s make a party of it! We’ll be watching April Snow (2005) and posting the review during the last week of the month.

Want to participate in the comments when it posts? You’ve got 3 weeks to watch! Rather wait for the review before you decide to stream it? We’ve got you covered.

 
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I really like this movie. It's cute.

"But in those times when we feel stuck in place, it helps to have besties to share our pain — not just to feel collectively alone with." I know what you mean, but maybe the film was being really honest about their loneliness? The type of loneliness where you can't really see what's around you, therefore you can only "move forward".

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Nice to see a throwback Korean film review here! I remember watching this film 13 years ago and writing a review on it. Can't believe it's been that long.

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