When it was released on February the 14th, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서) had the unenviable – and quite unfortunate – task of competing with several enormously popular films at the box office, in the form of Miracle in Room Number 7 and The Berlin File, which earned over 12 million and 7 million admissions respectively. A week later, gangster epic New World appeared in cinemas, hauling over 4 million admissions. Despite positive reviews from critics and audiences alike, the romantic-comedy just couldn’t compete.
This is a genuine shame as How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is an incredibly energetic, entertaining, and fresh rom-com. Director Lee Won-seok (이원석) infuses the film with a wacky and colourful sensibility, whilst simultaneously probing the sexism that exists within the workplace and, by extension, Korean culture. While the film turns to formulaic predictability in the final act to tie up all the loose ends, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is visually enjoyable and great fun, marking director Lee as a talent to watch.
Assistant director Choi Bo-na (Lee Si-yeong (이시영) has worked for years in a TV commercial company, endlessly slaving away on other productions while waiting for her big break…which never arrives. Moreover, Bo-na is very aware that her gender is an issue within the workplace as it holds her back from progressing within the sexist industry. When a new commercial for the company is shot on a beach, lead actor Lee Seung-jae (Oh Jeong-se (오정세) complains about everything, and Bo-na’s frustrated attempts to chastise the arrogant star results in more disapproval. So much so in fact that when the commercial has finished shooting, the entire team leave the sleeping AD on the beach. Wandering alone at night, Bo-na spies the colourful Dr. Swalski (Park Yeong-gyoo (박영규) selling instructional videos. Reluctantly agreeing to buy How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, Bo-na starts putting the tips into practice and suddenly her life begins to turn around with hilarious results.
While the story of a woman struggling in both her professional and personal life is nothing new in the rom-com arena, director Lee infuses the film with such a whimsical visual and musical vitality that it’s impossible not to be won over. From the outset the director’s keen sense of mise-en-scene and flamboyantly playful use of text and image techniques are apparent, yet it is the introduction of charismatic Dr. Swalski that allows him to fully display his zany aesthetics. The doctor – brilliantly performed by Park Yeong-gyoo – is a guardian angel of sorts who bestows advice on how to manipulate men through the video. The cheesy and camp sensibilities of such ’70s style infomercials are lovingly recreated to hilarious effect, from the costumes and props through to the mistakes and bad editing. What makes Dr. Swalski special however is that he is not confined to the TV set. Director Lee constantly plays with and breaks the barriers between the three realities – the video, Bo-na’s life, and the audience – which makes the film incredibly charismatic.
The comedy hijinks that ensue as Bo-na uses the tips are fantastically entertaining as they feature elements of truth, in that director Lee is probing real gender issues that exist within contemporary Korean culture. Bo-na is a great and talented director, yet her gender halts her progress. Her attempts to conceal her femininity with hoodies and to be treated equally merely results in hiding her attractiveness, which stops men making allowances for her. However when Bo-na begins employing Dr, Swalski’s advice, the story spins into poking fun at modern masculinity to great effect. From simple eye contact through to massaging the male ego, Bo-na learns the simplicity of the opposite sex and rapidly rises through the ranks. This is articulated the most through her relationship with arrogant actor Lee Seung-jae who, despite his initial snobbery, finds himself in very comical situations in attempting to prove his worth.
Yet How to Use Guys with Secret Tips unfortunately flounders in the final act. With so many funny plot threads to tie up, the story falls back on the predictable cliches found in the genre to do so. The absence of director Lee’s playfulness is keenly apparent during the resolution which is a real shame, as the build up to that point is wonderfully entertaining. Still, while the finale is somewhat lacking, the film is certainly one of the most visually energetic and inventive romantic comedies to appear from Korea in recent memory, and a great debut from director Lee.
How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is a wonderfully wacky and colourful romantic comedy, full of visual and musical vitality. Director Lee Won-seok is brilliantly inventive as he plays with genre and cinematic conventions, infusing the film with a seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. The laughs come thick and fast as they are based in truth, including sexism in the workplace and the fragility of the male ego, which are explored to highly comical effect. While the final act falls back on cliche and predictability, How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is a very entertaining and fun rom-com.