Year: 2008
Director: Kang Hyung-chul
Screenplay: Kang Hyung-chul, Lee Byeong-heon
Cinematography: Kim Joon-young
Cast: Cha Tae-hyun, Park Bo-young, Wang Seok-hyeon
Runtime: 108 min
Trailer: on Trailer Addict

Seen at a screening at the LKCCUK as part of the 2011 London Korean Film Festival (LKFF). (Note to Londoners: the film is available for loan from LKCCUK’s library.)

Scandal Makers (literally Speedy Scandal), the debut film of director Kang Hyung-chul, whose Sunny screened at the LKFF last week, was Korea’s sleeper hit of 2008 and broke the three-year reign of 미녀는 괴로워 (Minyeoneun Goerowo/200 Pounds Beauty) as the country’s most popular comedy. Scandal Makers was so successful that, with 8.31 million tickets sold, it took spot #8 on Korea’s list of most popular films of all times.

It is the first ten, fifteen minutes of Scandal Makers that are probably the funniest: Nam Hyeon-su (Cha Tae-hyun), a lapsed idol who lives his life under the delusion that people are still interested in him, takes a call from a woman, whose story has lately booted the ratings of his radio show. Hwang Jeong-nam (Park Bo-young) is a young, single mother and contemplating whether to meet with her father, who was never told about her existence. The conversation between them is hilarious, because it is of course Hyeon-su that is the father, clueless that the advice he is dispensing rather easily now will soon become his worst nightmare.

Later that evening Jeong-nam shows up at Hyeon-su’s apartment, her six-year old son Ki-dong (played by absolute cutie-pie Wang Seok-hyeon) in tow. Jeong-nam is shellshocked and in disbelief, because a 22-year old daughter – conceived, it turns out, during his ‘first time’ in 9th grade (yes, 9th grade) – does not fit his ideal of an orderly, scandal-free celebrity life. But Jeong-nam and Ki-dong refuse to leave and install themselves in Hyeon-su’s precious home. With the latter being a bachelor in every sense of the word – the film’s opening shots emphasise this -, clashes soon ensue. Neurotic, self-centred Hyeon-su wakes up at 8 on the dot every morning, keeps the apartment spotlessly clean and organises food in the fridge by day of consumption (and, it seems, even colour-codes it on top of it). Young mum and son, meanwhile, do not only leave clothes strewn all over, but squeaky-scary chicken toys too, sleepwalk (Ki-dong), take over his couch and occupy his bathroom whenever he has an urgent need to go.

These clashes are amusing, but are explored primarily through dialogue-less frames screened in quick succession. The film instead develops several, smaller plot strands: Jeong-nam’s dream of becoming a singer, her coincidental re-encounter with the father of her child and Hyeon-su’s crush on Ki-dong’s kindergarten principal. The intention here is to present a more layered film, but it feels a little fragmented because we only get some sense of the three becoming a (sort of) family unit. Although the male-bonding is explored, as Hyeon-su and Ki-dong hilariously join forces in the former’s love quest for the principal, the development of the relationship between all three is sidelined.

Scandal Makers clocks in at 108 minutes – too long for it to maintain the hilarity of the first part of the film. In part, a shift in mood is necessary as the subject matter turns more serious and Hyeon-su is forced to confront the reality of the situation and what is most important to him: the judgement of strangers or his daughter’s (and grandson’s) yearning for public recognition.

Korea’s top comedy makes for good entertainment and is, overall, a solid film. However, I think Scandal Makers might have been more satisfying as a drama. Although it feels too long as a film, it does in fact contain enough material for a more lengthy format, which – in the hands of some excellent scriptwriters – could have made more effective use of the different story strands that do not find full form in the film.

Rating: 7.5/10

A postscriptum: Hollywood is planning a remake of Scandal Makers, with Men in Black and Wild Wild West director Barry Sonnenfeld at the helm of the project – at least this was the news back in 2009. I have no idea whether the project is still in the making, but I would not mind if not: I am doubtful that Scandal Makers can successfully be transferred to a Western scenario without losing the charm that it does have. The subject of teenage pregnancies (with Hyeon-su fathering Jeong-nam in 9th grade, and Jeong-nam conceiving Ki-dong in 10th grade) might make for a scandal in many places, but Hyeon-su’s desperate attempts to keep his daughter and grandchild secret from everyone derive their comedic value from the Korean setting and socio-cultural norms and don’t make much sense within a Western framework.