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Festival film review: Crush and Blush

Lee Kyoung-mi (이경미): Crush and Blush (미쓰 홍당무, 2008)
Review by Robert Cottingham.


Right near the beginning of Crush and Blush, the main character Mi-seok stands digging a deep hole in a schoolyard. I thought that it was a punishment used in South Korean schools, but if not it could be a visual metaphor for someone digging themselves deeper into a figurative hole. That’s what happens to Mi-seok in this film, as she digs herself deeper and deeper into a very messy situation.

Crush and Blush is a wonderful comedy directed by Lee Kyoung-mi, and shown in London for the 11th Korean Film festival. After the blood spattered, male-dominated journey into hell that was Asura, it was a relief to enjoy the company of a slightly awkward but very likeable teacher who has a crush on one of the staff, the same teacher who taught her when she was a pupil at the school several years earlier.

Lee Mi-seok has an embarrassing facial disorder which causes her to blush whenever she is nervous or tells a lie. She teaches Russian at Girls’ high school but is forced to change to English in favour of a more attractive and younger teacher who is having an affair with her colleague Jong Cheol.  Things become even more complicated when Mi-seok teams up with his daughter who wants to stop her parents divorcing.  Soon they are using the science lab to send online messages as Jong-cheol to Lee Yoo-ri.  As this goes on they start to form a friendship with each other that is touching and sweet.

I’ve seen several Korean comedies and sometimes the humour is lost in translation: for example, characters acting in self-consciously zany, wacky or plain stupid ways that are never psychologically believable. But although the comedy in Crush and Blush is awkward, sometimes painfully so, it’s believable because the characters are acting in ways they think of as normal, however bizarre their actions appeared to us.

There is a lovely cameo from Jae-woo Bae as a dermatologist who must listen to Mi-seok’s laundry list of romantic problems: “If I don’t call him for a reason, how will he know I’m not calling him for a reason?”

It was easy to relate to what Mi-seok was feeling as she tried to hide her feelings for Jong-cheol whilst preventing any more closeness developing between the other teacher. The relationship between the teacher and pupil was touching and tender. I can count on one hand the number of good films about female friendships. But watching them conspire to break up the affair was superb, inspired and witty stuff.

I thought about the role of teaching too. In some ways the adult Mi-seok is less mature than the younger school girl who comes up with the hilarious messages to send to Jong-cheol. These messages get very graphic (although there is no sex in this film) and it seems as though the girl has a far deeper knowledge of sexual experiences than Mi-seok.

There was some cruel humour too which you often find in Korean films. For example, characters are called ‘losers’ and poor Mi-seok is labeled as ‘reds’ by her pupils for her hot-flushes. It seems that bullying in Korean schools is endemic. And there is the perception that Miseok is seen as being unattractive because she is not physically perfect in every way, especially when seen next to the conventionally beautiful Yoo-ri.

As a comedy, it was great. It also went deeper and was a great character study. Lee Kyoung-mi has recently directed The Truth Beneath, which opened the London Korean Film Festival. It was fascinating to watch both films side by side.

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