Year: 2011
Director: Kim Byung-kon (김병곤)
Country: South Korea
Screenplay: scriptwriter not named in the any of the sources I consulted
Cast: Jang Geun-sook (장근석), Kim Ha-neul (김하늘)
Runtime: 110 min.
Trailer: on YouTube (1 min trailer with English subtitles)
Film’s official website: in Korean

Advance warning: This review contains spoilers. I would recommend reading it only if you are already familiar with the manga or J-dorama that preceded the K-film.

너는 펫 (Neoneun Pet/You’re My Pet) sets itself up for problems from the start as it commits a fatal error when it allows Eun-yi (Kim Ha-neul) and In-ho (Jang Geun-sook) to meet under ‘human’ circumstances: Eun-soo (Choi Jong-hoon), Eun-Yi’s younger brother, brings In-ho, who has been booted out his own place, to his sister’s house for them to spend the night there. This opening is a deviation from the original Japanese manga (きみはペット/Kimi wa Petto, lit. “You’re My Pet”, official English title Tramps Like Us, 2000-2005), and from the live-action drama of the same name (Japan, 2003), both of which saw the heroine stumble on a badly beaten-up boy in a box in front of her house. Neoneun Pet does have the box scene, but it comes as an add-on only the next evening, when Eun-yi returns late from work. She finds In-ho, who has – unbeknownst to her – struck a rental deal with brother dearest but is locked out of the house, sheltering from the rain in said box. Unable to reach her sibling, Eun-yi and In-ho come to an agreement: she will put him up in her house on the condition that he become her pet – literally.

Of course, it is not always fair to compare remakes or adaptations to versions that came before, however, the change of the two leads’ first meeting signals a significant misunderstanding of the source material on part of the filmmakers. In Kimi wa Petto it is a creature that is encountered, a helpless, injured and starving something, instantly more animal than human and described by Sumire – the Japanese Eun-yi – as sounding “like a dog” and looking like one too almost immediately. The zoomorphisation is even stronger in the dorama, where Sumire (played by Koyuki) cares for a nearly unconscious and bleeding creature (Matsumoto Jun aka Matsujun) for a whole night, so by the time humanness can actually be displayed, Matsujun is more dog than person already. It helps that Matsujun’s character, unlike Jang’s, comes out of nothingness (the box scene is his first appearance, Jang has several scenes before), that he is given an unused loft (much like a doghouse, a space separate and on a different level, symbolising the human-animal hierarchy) rather than a normal room adjacent to the owner’s to sleep in, and that there is, generally, a much clearer demarcation between the life of Momo (the pet at home) and Takeshi (the human outside the home).

In fact, Neoneun Pet even manages to make a mess of the pet’s naming. It tries to convince us that Eun-yi allows her brother’s friend to sleep over without asking for his name – utterly strange really, given that the boys were neither drunk, drugged or in any other altered state of mind that might have eliminated the introductory conversation human beings generally have under such circumstances. There is more: although Eun-yi and In-ho go through the same motions as the manga and dorama – the owner gets to name the pet, the name chosen, Momo, is one of a dog Eun-yi had as a child – but In-ho adds, “it’s the Momo from that children’s book”, emphasising, yet again, the human (Momo is a girl in a lovely novel by German author Michael Ende). There is, thus, a petto in Kimi wa Petto long before Sumire jokingly suggests the deal, while by the time we get to this point in Neoneun Pet, it simply seems like two perfectly human adults are having a dare for the heck of it (which, in another problematic deviation, is initiated by In-ho rather than Eun-yi). Eun-yi never quite masters the role of the dog owner, and In-ho never is that pet – only a man that occasionally play-acts by emitting a few barks and miaos throughout the film. Jang does not achieve Matsujun’s level of doggification (neither physically nor behaviourally, with Matsujun-Momo being extremely quirky and cuddly from the beginning) and the film also lacks Kimi wa Petto’s constant wordplay (“Are you some kind of stray dog?”, “Don’t look at me with those puppy dog eyes.”).

Puppy dog eyes: Quirky, cuddly Matsujun-Momo kawaiiiii. A pet in every sense.

Sadly, the lack of success at making Jang into the pet, isn’t the only flaw of Neoneun Pet. There is more loss in the character of Eun-yi (compared to the original Sumire) and in the relationship between the leads as well. The perfectionist career woman that petrifies her colleagues exists only very briefly in Neoneun Pet as sharp edges are smoothed off almost immediately. Gone is the ‘don’t mess with me’ Sumire that bashes a butt-grabbing colleague in the face and breaks his tooth (dorama), gone is the chain-smoking, nervous wreck at home (manga + dorama). And gone is also the titillation that underlined the relationship between pet and owner. The original comic was pervaded by raciness, commencing with the depiction of a scantily clad Sumire, supine on the ground, black lace-bra peaking out and pocky-snatching Momo climbing onto her, on the cover of volume 1:

Sexual tease right from the start: manga cover, volume 1

The dorama followed suit, even raising le sexy a notch at times. Manga-Momo tells Sumire to name him after her ex-boyfriend or favourite celebrity, but the never shy dorama-Momo additionally provides “the guy you lost your virginity to” as an option. Movie-Momo, on the other hand, completely desexualises the choices (“your favourite actor’s name, or a singer’s”). Even the maturation of the relationship between him and Eun-yi is puzzling. Granted, the multiple series manga and dorama both had an advantage here, but it is possible to develop chemistry between leads in films of 90 (or rather, in this case, even 110!) minutes. What makes the difference? With crude humour, the dorama crackles with sexual tension. Matsujun-Momo comes shirtless in the bathtub and, most of all, Kimi wa Petto makes it very clear that adults – have – sex. Thus, by the time Sumire and Momo admit their romantic feelings for one another, we are at the point of explosion.

Japanese pets bathe (and run around) naked, Korean ones wear shirts.   

Neoneun Pet? Eun-yi seems to fall for In-ho because he looks cute when sleeping. He also bathes with a full set of undergarments (the ‘sexy strip dance’ that he attempts, unfortunately, is only silly). And then there are a few rather clichéd scenes of near-kisses, which fail to turn the heat on. As for sex, let’s just say that we get served with marriage proposals before the would-be fiancés have actually begun dating. Indeed, the film posters are probably the raciest bit of Neoneun Pet – some having been closely modelled on covers of the original manga.

Tame posters & racy dorama vs. racy posters & tame film

The film asks for too much from the viewer: it wants us to simply believe in the romantic attraction between Eun-yi and In-ho rather than showing us how they fall in love. There are gaps, and there are scenes that are too fabricated (prime offense: front doors that are conveniently left open – in the middle of Seoul – for anyone to walk in whenever a revelation or confrontation is needed). This is not to say that the dorama is perfect – there are also things I’ll bemoan in the J-production (and as well as in the manga). Yet what makes Kimi wa Petto one of those must-watch items for anyone remotely interested in Japanese television or culture more generally is that it did not only succeed in carrying over an outlandish, very manga-ish plot (which is difficult enough) into another medium, but that it gave us wacky yet endearing characters that truly fall in love with one another and that we fall in love with too. Kimi wa Petto rocked my socks off, Neoneun Pet, frankly, bored me.

Overall Verdict: A flat and uninspiring adaptation of a quirky but much beloved manga, which delighted on the screen in J-dorama form but miserably fails as a K-movie.

Rating: 3/10

Bonus links:

  • Kimi wa Petto, the manga
  • Some classic Kimi wa Petto dorama moments (all from episode 1) –  totally crack me up every time I watch them.
  • My familiarity with Michael Ende’s Momo came from having read it as a child, but the book apparently is better known in Korea than one would expect: it was popularised again when it made an appearance in the k-drama 내 이름은 김삼순 (Nae Ileumeun Kim Sam-soon/My Name Is Kim Sam Soon, 2005). I never picked up on the reference when watching the drama, but then I probably wasn’t being very attentive (didn’t care for the drama too much, despite its general popularity).