Set in South Korea during the late ’90s, sentimental rom-com “20th Century Girl” offers local audiences a generous helping of nostalgia, while feeding Westerners’ growing appetite for content from the country that gave them BTS and “Squid Game.” Director Bang Woo-ri’s feature debut follows a 17-year-old as she navigates her life-changing first love and the intricacy of female friendship, joining the list of big- and smallscreen Korean love stories set in the era, including “Architecture 101” and “Twenty-Five and Twenty-One.” Available worldwide via Netflix, the coming-of-age movie offers a memorable study of how youthful errors, however silly or trivial, can define our lives.
It begins as a 17-year-old Bo-ra (Kim You-jung) says goodbye to best friend Yeon-doo (Noh Yoon-seo) as she leaves for the U.S. to undergo a serious heart surgery. During their time apart, Bo-ra is asked to find out all she can about her friend’s crush, Hyun-jin (Park Jung-woo), a cheeky, popular classmate whom Yeon-doo had a cursory encounter with before she left.
Fiercely loyal to her ailing friend, Bo-ra uses creative if sometimes silly tactics to learn about Hyun-jin, diligently e-mailing everything she discovers — from his shoe size to his best friend’s home address — to Yeon-doo. But things take unexpected turns when Bo-ra realizes, for the first time in her life, she is falling hard for a boy: Woon-ho (Byeon Woo-seok), Hyun-jin’s thoughtful and closest friend. When Yeon-doo finally returns, Bo-ra is hardly prepared for what awaits her.
The film is loosely based on director Bang’s own experiences growing up in Cheongju, a relatively quiet town in central South Korea, as well as time spent with her girlfriends in high school. Bang captures the feeling of devoted teenage friendships and the joys of sharing confidences with fellow girls, while acknowledging how they are inevitably meant to change — despite genuine efforts to sustain them — as time goes on.
Kim You-jung is both convincing and delightful as Bo-ra, who, in many seemingly insignificant yet occasionally heartbreaking moments, has yet to realize the significance of what she’s going through. While the movie offers very little about the person Bo-ra grew up to be (played in the present by Han Hyo-joo, who also hails from Cheongju in real life), it does reveal that her career choice was shaped by what Woon-ho once told her in a goofy moment, some two decades earlier.
The movie is complemented by ’90s signposts, including VHS tapes, pagers and public phonebooths, while certain scenes rekindle memories of some of the most iconic K-pop videos and TV dramas of the era, including Deux’s “In Summer.” Bo-ra’s father runs a video rental store, which sets up a comic scene where she’s busted at school with a copy of “An Affair,” an R-rated 1998 erotic drama featuring “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, and forced to hold it up in detention.
The way things end may not be popular nor convincing to some, since the film leaves some of its key characters surprisingly unexplored, despite its two-hour running time. A few critical conflicts are resolved rather abruptly and arguably too easily. Though its potential is not fully realized, “20th Century Girl” does manage to add to the timeworn theme of first love by providing a moving examination of what makes certain moments — and certain people — unforgettable.
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