Films about friends during their teen-aged years who reunite later in life follow a familiar set of conventions. The heroine must find her present situation in life stifling and frustrating. One of the friends is suffering from a fatal illness, or has died. The members of the group have for the most part fallen short of their aspirations, and live with the ache of disappointed hopes. At least 1/3 of the clique should have acquired a financial status that is completely at odds with the expectations others had of them when they were young. There is the cool and assertive leader, the wiseacre, the studious girl, the tragically doomed girl, the sensitive artist, and the brash tomboy. The film will use flashbacks to recreate a bygone era in meticulous detail, using the pop music of the time to evoke nostalgic responses from the audience. Sunny, directed by Kang Hyung-chul (or Hyeong-cheol), sticks for the most part to these formulas, but there is enough that is off-kilter about the film that makes it completely absorbing. The second-highest grossing movie of 2011 in South Korea, selling over 7.5 million tickets, it is an example of commercial filmmaking at its most engaging.
The protagonist of the film, Im Na-mi, is a housewife who lives in a luxurious apartment with her successful but extremely busy husband and a standoffish teen-aged daughter. She has the enviable life of the affluent upper-class in Seoul, but of course she feels that there is a void in her day-to-day existence. One day, while visiting the hospital, her attention is caught by the groans of a woman in severe pain. Looking at the name on the door of the patient’s room, she discovers that it belongs to a friend from her high school days, Ha Chun-hwa. Chun-hwa had been the leader of their circle of friends, which they named “Sunny” after the song by Boney M. The film flashes back to Na-mi’s first day at a prestigious girls’ school in Seoul during the mid-1980s, where her family has moved after her father has received a new job. Na-mi appears to be a stereotypically shy transfer student, but the film quickly establishes that there are social and economic divisions at play. Na-mi’s family is not wealthy – it is through her father’s employers that their family is able to send her to the school. Moreover, she hails from Jeolla, a region located in south-west Korea which was largely bypassed by the military government of Park Chung-hee for economic development. The region was also the hotbed of pro-democracy protests, which led to a brutal massacre in May 1980 in the city of Gwangju after a new military leader had taken power in a coup. Thus, when a pair of bullies picks on Na-mi, they insult her with demeaning stereotypes of the Jeolla region. Na-mi is also mortified when one of her new classmates draws attention to her shoes, which are the brand of sneakers derided by girls in the more upscale city.
In spite of these differences, Na-mi is quickly welcomed into a circle of girls led by assertive and confident Chun-hwa. Na-mi struggles not so much to fit in with her friends, but rather to become adapted to a surprising environment. She, and the audience, is taken aback by the rambunctiousness of the classroom – one of Na-mi’s new friends spends most of the class period hunched over a mirror while working on giving herself double eyelids by means of tape, behavior which goes unpunished by the teacher. The other students act out in spontaneous and undisciplined ways, which provides for many comical moments in the film. Indeed, after school, Na-mi is told that the friends are going off to confront a rival group of girls from a vocational school in a standoff over turf. “Don’t worry,” a member of her group reassures her, “we often don’t actually fight because they are afraid of us.” The climactic confrontation with the rival gang of girls takes place in the middle of an all-out street battle between pro-democracy protesters and riot police, in which the girls pick up the shields and truncheons dropped to the ground against each other. The scene is played as comedy, as Na-mi’s gesture of throwing a shield at one of her rivals deflects tear-gas canisters thrown by the police away from the protesters and back onto them.
But if the film depicts the pro-democracy protests, which led to violent clashes with the police, in a light-hearted manner, it cannot ultimately do the same for the Asian financial crisis. There is a humorous moment where Na-mi decides to hire a detective to find the other members of Sunny to fulfill Chun-hwa’s dying wish to reunite the group. Her friend, Jang-mi, who is an insurance salesperson, recommends the investigator who succeeded in hunting her down when she and her husband were hiding from their debts. Why not go with a detective who has proven his worth, Jang-mi asks. But the film shows that other members of the group have fallen on hard times, with one suffering a particularly harsh series of reversals after losing her business. Jang-mi herself is on the verge of being cut from her firm, and tries to sell a policy to the police who have arrested her and her friends after they have assaulted a group of school-girls who are bullying Na-mi’s daughter. The shadow of economic hardship, cast by the near-collapse of the South Korean economy in 1997, still hangs heavy over the country.
The film is deft enough to move fluidly from nostalgic teen comedy to scenes with have a social realist overtones, and it is no less convincing when at the end, it evokes elements of the fairy-tale. Chun-hwa’s fatal illness turns out not to be the central tragic event of the film. Rather, an attack on Na-mi and the violent response it provokes leads to the dissolution of the group. Many years later, the women find themselves hoping against hope that the one friend who was truly lost may at last rejoin the group. The way the film handles this mystery might be a bit abrupt for some, but the remarkable credit sequence evokes the next chapter of their lives, graced by the bonds of their renewed friendship.