The life of spoiled rich brats undergoing a momentous personality shift is seemingly inherent to portrayals of American teenagers; their affluence, power and arrogance a by-product of rich-yet-absentee parents. As convention dictates, the teen learns and embraces the emotional connections with others, unselfishly wielding their wealth for the betterment of others.
As Korea has so rapidly grown and developed, such narrative traits have not only permeated but are often fundamental in representing the social elite and their intense desire for ownership of luxury goods. A Millionaire’s First Love (백만장자의 첫사랑), while initially conforming to such generic features, veers away into a touching tale of romance which is quite endearing and will be beloved by teenagers, despite the absence of character and narrative development.
On his 18th birthday, rich, rebellious and arrogant Kang Jae-kyung (Hyeon-bin (현빈) is set to inherit his late grandfather’s vast empire making him unbelievably wealthy. Yet his lifestyle of driving sports cars, gang fights and clubs have led to a clause in the transfer of assets; Jae-kyung must attend, and graduate, a high school deep in the countryside. With little alternative, Jae-kyung visits the school and meets new classmates, including studious Choi Eun-whan (Lee Yeon-hee (이연희). As Jae-kyung attempts to cause as much disruption as possible, his growing relationship with Eun-whan teaches him the merits of things money cannot buy.
A Millionaire’s First Love begins in a rather generic fashion, with director Kim Tae-gyoon (김태균) portraying the affluent and rebellious lifestyle of Jae-kyung with sports cars, clubs and women. Such scenes are cutely-comical however it is nigh-on impossible to accept actor Won-bin, who was 24 at the time, as an 18 year old socialite. The actor, as well as the co-stars, are physically and stylishly much more mature than the ages they are attempting to portray, which cannot help but detract from the enjoyment of the film. When the actors appear in school uniform it is laughable and unconvincing, although such scenes are generally kept to a minimum. Unfortunately as this the premise of the film it ultimately conveys a sense of silliness to the proceedings.
Where A Millionaire’s First Love wonderfully succeeds is when the premise is jettisoned in favour of the romance between Jae-kyung and Eun-hwan. Korean cinema’s tendancy to flit between genres at whim is in full effect in A Millionaire’s First Love and the film benefits enormously because of it. Again, what draws the couple together initially is rather trite and silly yet once this is overcome the romance is deeply compelling and poignant. Due to health problems Eun-hwa moves into Jae-kyung’s country home, within which screenwriter Kim Eun-sook (김은숙) crafts some incredibly romantic scenes as the two share moments both funny – painting nails – and deeply moving – an early birthday – to convincing effect. Due to their co-habitation their real ages become less of a hinderance and much more fitting to the situation, as the depth of the love and sentiment conveyed implies a mature relationship and as such adds realism.
A Millionaire’s First Love is very much Jae-kyung’s story, and Won-bin performs the role ably. He has difficulty conveying the initial rebellious nature of the character, as even when swearing or fighting he is comical and clearly a man attempting to portray a boy. However, Won-bin excels during romantic and emotional sequences and never fails to convince that his love is genuine.
Despite her more supportive role, Lee Yeon-hee is excellent as Eun-hwa and steals the spot-light from her co-star with her acting ability. She is the only actor in the film that is convincing as a high school student with her appearance and diligent nature, and is by far the most compelling protagonist. When Eun-hwa begins to experience health problems, Lee Yeon-hee appears genuinely in pain and is convincing in the severity of her illness. As with her co-star, Lee Yeon-hee provides her best performances during emotional scenes and conveys incredible sincerity that is both poignant and moving.
The rest of the cast fair far less well and serve to be little more than irritations. While their roles are not developed more than several lines of dialogue between them, what is performed is hackneyed and over-acted particularly by the fellow students.
Despite opening with a rather contrived premise, A Millionaire’s First Love excels upon moving beyond teenage high school concerns and embracing the romance between the central couple. While the ages of the actors are an incredible distraction, such problems dissipate through the emotionally charged and moving scenes that occur as their love develops, and as such the film will undoubtedly please teenage audiences and romance fans to whom A Millionaire’s First Love is aimed.