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Original Title:
Yeol-se-sal Soo-ah

South Korea 2007


Kim Hee-jung

Lee Se-yeong
Chu Sang-mi
Choi Myeong-su
Kim Yoon-ah
Yoo Hye-ri
Shin Min-gyu
Jeong Jin-an
Jeon Hanssen

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The Wonder Years

aka Girl, Thirteen

Story: Soo-ah (Lee Se-yeong) is a withdrawn 13-year old girl, who thinks that she is being neglected by her mother (Chu Sang-mi). Soo-ah has problems finding new friends and finds shelter in her own little world. Most of the time her mother is occupied by leading her restaurant, or to spend her little free time with her new boyfriend (Choi Myeong-su), the owner of a junk yard. Soo-ah can't stand the new friend of her mother, even though he seems to be a good-hearted and kind guy.
It seems that Soo-ah is plagued by a deep-rooted loneliness since the day her father passed away. When one day she reads her father's diary, she finds out that her real mother is Yoon Sur-young (Kim Yoon-ah), a famous Korean popstar. From that day on she wishes nothing more than to finally meet her.
Life becomes more difficult for Soo-ah when her mother has to give up her restaurant, because she has fallen victim to a con that cost her all of her money. They have to move into the home of Soo-haa's mother's friend, and even worse Soo-ah also has to visit middle-school now. She finds some new friends, yet skips school, because she is getting bullied by some of her schoolmates.
Soo-ah wants to flee her inner emptiness and gets on a train heading for Seoul, in order to go on one of her mother's concerts and finally meet her in person...

Review: There are a few dramas that at first look like your typical genre treat, but as things progress prove to be surprsingly profound and touching. "The Wonder Years" is such a film, as the melancholic picture drawn of Soo-ah's life looks like typical art-house cinema work. However, only a few minutes into the movie we realize the drama's true strength - an indefinable warmth, that is woven into the pictures in a careful and subtle way, taking the viewer on a trip into the life of a teenager, who tries to find herself and her place in this world. Often enough we are presented with dramas that walk similar paths, but "The Wonder Years" actually succeeds in staying in our memory, because of its sincereness, and because the movie isn't nearly as much in love with itself as many films of the genre tend to be.

The plot is revolving around Soo-ah, a girl that is stuck in the midst of puberty and has to struggle with some serious problems. Since her mother has to take care of her restaurant, Soo-ah feels neglected by her to such a degree that she actually questions if she is her real mother. Moreover, she misses her father, to whom she apparently had a very good relationship. Therefore, it doesn't come as a big surprise that she faces her mother's new boyfriend with a lot of antipathy, even though he seems to be a nice guy. As Soo-ah's mother doesn't even have the time to accompany her daughter to a school fest, the girl has no other choice, but to flee into her own dream world. She idolizes popstar Yoon Sur-young, played by real popstar Kim Yoon-ah, and in her even sees her true mother. Over and over again she watches recordings of her concerts and builds up an ideal world to find shelter at. The things Soo-ah reads in her father's diary, concerning that the pop singer is in fact her real mother, aren't really a incontrovertible fact for the viewer, as the girl might mix up reality and fiction in her fantasy world. Thus, we don't have to take everything at face value of what we see from her perspective.

We are introduced to Soo-ah's dream world on several occassions, and we never run the risk to miss when this happens as these events are brought onto screen in a very apparent and grandiose way. The cold cinematography lightens up and warm colors along with a rare smile of the girl signalize that we have dropped out of reality for now. This is especially obvious in one scene playing at a train with a clown, or a certain singing scene of Kim Yoon-ah, which may kick in a little bit too sudden, yet somehow manages to avoid feeling out of place in this drama.
What's also standing out is that many shots are very tranquil and peaceful in its core. The pacing is always slow in a very welcome way, and it still never gets boring. However, despite all the tranquility and melancholy, the film doesn't restrain from using important dialogues or language as a tool of communication, which is completely different from what Mister Kim Ki-duk would have prefered. Therefore, "The Wonder Years" always manages to keep up a lively bond to the protagonists and thus never feels as cold or distant as it has to be criticized with so many other dramas.

The movie's center is Soo-ah's search for who she really is and her relationship with her mother, of course. Nonetheless, female director Kim Hee-jung always finds the time to shed some light on the problems of girls at Soo-ah's age on a relatively wide scope. Sometimes she just outlines them, at others she goes into more details. The girl finds two friends who couldn't be any more different from one another. One being a rich girl who soon gets into a fight with Soo-ah over a boy she likes, and the second one being a poor girl, who has a questionable job at a Korean Karaoke Bar. Still, both girls, respectively both worlds, don't appeal to Soo-ah. Her short friendships just can't provide her with what she was hoping to find. Nonetheless, there is enough space to show Soo-ah's blossoming sexuality with a small kiss to her female friend, or just time to give some food for thought with some nicely implemented motives.
Only retrospectively you will understand many of the small details of the story and you'll eventually get aware that the director actually attached much importance on the story's small details. Together with some nice camera work and long shots, which are full of sincere acting, these facts show how much of their heart the filmmakers put into this drama.

The performances of the actors are all to be located at a high level, which is most apparent in the many long shots that come without any cut. Especially main actress Lee Se-yeong delivers an impressive performance. She plays the introverted girl without ever running the risk to lose herself in chlichés. She manages to create a complex character and doesn't only succeed in crying on cue, but also conveys a lot of emotions in an absolutely engaging and truthful way. Without any doubt her scenes with her mother, played by Chu Sang-mi, are the best of the movie, but even the supporting actors know how to make a very convincing impression on the viewer. This is mainly because of the fact that all the characters are drawn very honest and genuine.
Of course, there are also some flaws to be found, too. When Soo-ah visits the pop singer at a concert, this all leads to some emotionally overloaded scenes. Well, sometimes less is more. Moreover, it's a little bit sad, that the end is a little bit too stretched.

However, "The Wonder Years" is a special movie, because of its sincereness and its profoundness without having this strange feel of an Art-House flick to it. Furthermore, you really have to give the film credit for not trying to be one of those many tearjerker dramas. Especially the ending demonstrates this fact impressively. "The Wonder Years" radiates the kind of warmth and heartiness, you seldomly get from a drama. The comforting feeling the film bestows on us when the credits hit the screen are enough reason to clearly recommend this drama to any fan of the genre.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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