In a small picturesque countryside town, cattle farmer Seok-jung (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) yearns to be married. Having saved plenty of money he initially considers finding a bride in The Philippines, however decides that the absence of love defeats the purpose. Close to giving up hope, Seok-jung spies new resident Eun-ha (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) in the village who works as a ‘coffee girl’/prostitute, and is instantly smitten despite his mother’s (Na Moon-hee (나문희) disapproval. Seok-jung showers Eun-ha with affection in order to win her heart, with the worldly-wise Seoulite gradually succumbing to his country charms. Yet Eun-ha’s turbulent past eventually catches up to her, testing the limits of their love.
Director Park Jin-pyo (박진표) cemented his status as a filmmaker of repute with You Are My Sunshine, a romantic-drama that impressively employs the cliches and predictable pleasures of the genre in becoming an effective and entertaining tear-jerker.
While You Are My Sunshine doesn’t push any boundaries in terms of originality, director Park perceptively infuses the film with generic conventions alongside an awareness of their strengths and limitations, following tried-and-tested motifs yet still managing to avoid descending into corny melodrama. Indeed, certain scenes even playfully poke fun at the huge popularity of such tales despite the silliness, in amusing self-referential moments. As well as the clearly self-aware narrative, the camerawork and cinematography apply a more social-realist aesthetic than is typically found in other examples of the genre, halting the story from becoming too whimsical by grounding events with a distinct air of realism. Luckily this doesn’t translate into the story taking itself too seriously, as You Are My Sunshine fully embraces the cliches as virtues and emerges stronger for it.
The power of You Are My Sunshine resides in the central relationship which features fantastic performances by leads Hwang Jeong-min and Jeon Do-yeon, who received critical acclaim as well as notable accolades, for their turns in the film. Hwang Jeong-min is incredibly charismatic as farmhand Seok-jung. He clearly bulked up for the role as his size is particularly imposing, which ironically contrasts with his boyishly energetic mannerisms and speech that convey a kindly and naive, yet intellectually limited, suitor. Much of the film’s enjoyment is derived from his boundless hopefulness and innocence as he pursues and is constantly rejected by a ‘coffee girl’ – a desire his mother and friends are baffled by – yet his persistence and sincerity are heartwarming despite the cliches. Jeon Do-yeon, meanwhile, opts for an alternative approach in her portrayal of Eun-ha as she doesn’t merely act the role, but inhabits it completely. She is simply brilliant throughout, channeling Eun-ha’s pessimism and experience in confrontations with Seok-jung with acute sophistication.
Unfortunately however the narrative falters in the final act as the pressure to succumb to melodrama is impossible to avoid, although fans will undoubtedly be highly satisfied. Director Park employs a life-threatening illness as a plot device to generate to required sentiment which is quite exploitative, however he manages to sidestep the full brunt of criticism by using it to explore the ignorance of local townsfolk, the negativity inherent in gossip, as well as the manner in which the media appropriate such events for gain. It amalgamates into a finale that is ultimately far too long yet it does contain some interesting debates regarding Korean society and law.
You Are My Sunshine is an entertaining romantic-drama by director Park Jin-pyo, who employs the cliches and conventions of the genre effectively without succumbing to whimsical melodrama. Featuring wonderful performances by Jeon Do-yeon and Hwang Jeong-min, as well as a sense of self-awareness and greater realism than its peers, the film is particularly effective in conveying a fraught tale of romance that fans of the genre are sure to relish.