Firstly we would like to say, don’t judge a film by it’s cheesy title and misleading cover, this film is not a fluffy chick-flick but a very witty comedy. How to Use Guys with Secret Tips follows the life of Choi Bo-na (Lee Si-yeong), an unappreciated Second Assistant to Director Ryuk Bong-ah (Lee Won-Jong) who made it big in the commercial world after an avant garde sanitary towel advert. Bo-na’s hard-work is overlooked time and time again, and one day she finds herself left alone on a beach after a shoot. It is here that she meets tacky salesman and star of his own self-help VHS’ Dr Swalski (Park Yeong-gyoo). After a surreal meeting by his amazing VHS mobile, she is sent home with his How to Use Guys with Secret Tips box set. Strong headed Bo-na is unconvinced at first, but as desperate times calls, she resorts to trying out some of the tips and to great result. And we watch as she hilariously and awkwardly follows the guide to step up the career ladder as well as landing herself the brilliantly deluded Korean Robert Downey Jr, Lee Seung-jae (Oh Jeong-se).
How to Use Guys with Secret Tips is the directorial debut for Lee Won-suk and showcases his brilliant style and humour. Stylistically this film is awesome, it has the unique wackiness of the Scott Pilgrim film; great efforts and details have been put into the editing, the settings, the costumes, the visual gags, the quirky habits of each character; everything is sleek. The plot centres around Bo-na and the self-help VHS, which we first view via Bo-na’s retro TV/Video combo. The VHS stars Dr Swalski and his two awkward assistants, the production is very low-budget which can’t afford to freeze frame as they spent all their money on the fabulously tacky texts and video gaming effects; cue hilariously shaky pauses from the team and amateur set arrangements in the background as camera is rolling. From all the characters little gestures to the repetition of absurd commands on screen, already we can see Director Lee’s witty sense of humour, attention to the finest details and very creative editing style.
As Bo-na starts utilising the secret tips, Dr Swalski and his two assistants begin to invade her surroundings whenever needed and dramatically popping up “unexpectedly” like some cheesy magician to impart some of his great wisdom. It almost becomes a game of Where’s Waldo (or Wally to us British folk) as we try to guess where else can he spontaneously appear from? From behind the van dressed like a traffic conductor? Or as he spins around flamboyantly from amongst a moving crowd. But what makes HTUGWST (the title is too long) so quirky is that it constantly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy within the film. Dr Swalski relentlessly pops up in the narrative to narrate Bo-na’s situation but not as a dream like ghost but as an intrusive old man which causes a lot of hilarious moments such as being boo-ed by the queues in fast food chain as he tries to teach us the next tip disguised as a waiter behind the counter, or being told to shut up by drunks as he tries to film his instructional skits at a bar. All this adds to the ridiculous silliness of the film. This film also breaks that fourth wall between characters and audiences as Dr Swalski talks directly at the viewers almost like we’re the participants of his self-help guide.
This film is very uplifting and all is going well, we’re enjoying the journey as Bo-na takes on each tip to cringe-worthy results. We’re appreciating the collective of eccentric characters and anticipate Dr Swalski’s next theatrical entrance. But as the plot builds up, the film starts to lose it’s unique quirkiness and focuses too much on the relationship between Bo-na and the “love interest” Seung-jae. Bo-na’s transformation and her blossoming relationship is fun but things suddenly get too serious and steer into the land of typical romcom territory. As Bo-na’s ex-boyfriend appears, too many characters get involved and at the final big climactic scene where everyone including Seung-jae’s manager’s dog gets involved, everything becomes too cluttered and the film loses it’s earlier wittier humour and well executed gags. Everything suddenly seems a bit forced and rushed to get the beautiful perfect romcom ending. But then again, the ending is always the hardest part, how else could Director Lee have ended this film and relieved Dr Swalski of his services gracefully?
Even though the ending wasn’t as satisfying as we had hoped, we loved this film for the ensemble of well thought out and wonderfully kooky characters. We loved everyone, you can probably already tell we are big fans of Dr Swalski and wish we could have him narrate our lives, but lets give his male assistant and his amazing thumbs a big enthusiastic thumbs up and we salute you female assistant for your poise, grace and fabulous awkwardness in all the instructional videos; may your lessons in Casual Touch forever be utilised. And whilst we’re celebrating the assistants, we also want to give a shout out to the overlooked assistant of Seung-jae who was always suited up and striking suave male model poses. You and your passionate loyalty to Seung-jae was magnificent. As well as oblivious love rival and overly perfect and charming Oh Ji-hun who had obviously spent time in America and now excessive calls everyone “dawg”. Everything from wardrobe, speech and little characteristics and habits seemed meticulously calculated to maximise comic effect, and these were just the sidekicks of the film.
The main movers and shakers of the plot were equally fantastic. Lee Si-young possesses the looks to convincingly pull off Tomboy, and when she started “using her feminine charms” it didn’t feel too unrealistic or contrived. The chemistry between Bo-na and Superstar Seung-jae played by Oh Jung-se was subtle yet believable and not too overly sweet. Seung-jae is brilliant as the arrogant yet sincere actor who was constantly undermined, from his flashy first appearance being ruined by a randy dog to constantly being put in compromising and embarrassing situations, he manages to carry it all off effortlessly and somewhat gracefully, as well as making the many questionable fashion items of his wardrobe work. We also love his fabulous hair styles which served as a marker for his diminishing bravado.
Although this film seems like your typical romcom, which can be critiqued for being a bit sexist; portraying men as easily manipulated beings and Bo-na can easily get ahead in life by dressing prettily, this is actually a very clever comedy. It almost pokes fun at the stereotypes with the over-exaggerated and uncomfortable smiles. Director Lee seems like he’s mocking the sexism in Korean society, the key thing being, Choi Bo-na is not actually being taught to be a pretty girl, she is being taught to be confident. We begin the film with her hiding in androgynous hoodies in a male dominated industry, but when she starts dressing like a girl, she is not like the other cutie girl who uses comic sans as it’ll make the document look prettier. On the contrary, when Bo-na first wears a skirt, everything goes drastically wrong. Bo-na gains respect from Seung-jae when she becomes the confident director in just a simple jean and shirt, not when she is awkwardly forced to be girly. Bo-na doesn’t buy into these superficial tips, but resorts to them when desperate and even then she remains strong headed and although there is romance in the film, it doesn’t make finding a man the most important thing in Bo-na’s life, but her overcoming her inferiority complex and gaining the confidence to stand up for herself.
Overall, we highly recommend this film to everyone. This comedy has a fabulous quirky charm and also has a very nostalgic feel to it with the use of Dr Swalski’s instructional VHS. The editing style is also exhaustingly creative and intricate making this film bright, fun and engaging and will no doubt appeal to modern movie-goers. Comedy is also all about timing and Director Lee does it oh-so-fantastically, along with very adept use of audio, the equivalent of a drum roll and badumtsk to just simple yet hilarious slapstick gags, there are just too many favourite moments to name and we can’t wait to see more comical genius from Director Lee Won Suk.
This is a gem and we’re very grateful to Third Windows Films for making it more accessible to UK audiences. It was on during the London Korean Film Festival but clashed with another popular film meaning we missed out and without Third Windows Film, this little piece of joy would have been absent from our lives. It has been described as a Black Comedy which will no doubt please the British sense of humour so get some Korean comedy in you life!