Always Look on the Sunny Side of Life

What distinguishes Sunny (써니) from other movies of its kind is that it is less a nostalgic movie as it is a movie about nostalgia. In other words, the motive that drives the film is less about wanting to relive a moment that is now long gone, but about the act of being nostalgic (and the dangers inherent in it). This is a movie set in 2010, not 1986.

The Eighties, you might think, would be an odd period for Koreans to be nostalgic about. After all, this was a decade that began in bloodshed and climaxed in chaos, and then the Olympic Games were plonked on top of it all, like a cherry on top of a crumbling lava cake. There was a military dictator, street demonstrations, mass rallies, labor unrest, tortured college students and Andre Kim. North Korea did their part as well – detonating a bomb that killed half the South Korean cabinet, and another bomb that blew up an airliner flying home from the Middle East and killing 115. The Soviets also blew up a Korean airliner that had accidentally floated into its airspace. This was not a pleasant decade, not by a country mile.

Yet, here we are.

The Eighties are to South Korea what the Sixties are to the West, except that the music was not as good. It was a time of upheaval, of social and political change, of a kind of collective madness. And if the Sixties gave us the hippie generation, then the Eighties gave us the 386 generation (the term inspired by, of all things, the Intel chip). The 386 generation was coined in the 1990s (referring to the generation who were then in their 30’s, who went to college in the 80’s and who were born in the 60’s). This was the generation that was radicalized by the Gwangju Massacre, fought the riot police at the front gates of Yonsei, and smashed windows in the streets of Myeongdong. But there is also today, a great deal of ambivalence for the 386ers. They dominate politics (on both the left and right – many former left wing activists now having defected to the conservatives), and the younger generation cannot wait to be rid of them all, replace them all with a new breed for whom democracy is assumed, not a generation who believe that it is a gift that they bequeathed the nation. For today’s youth, the 386ers represent their overbearing parents at home and their oafish bosses at work; what with their bad manners, their inability to distinguish between the personal and the professional, their constant harping on about the past. The 386 are the kkondae (꼰대) generation, the latte-is-a-horse (나 때는 말이야) generation, the what’s-a-bit-of-sexual-harrassment-among-colleagues generation. You see, the 386 are mired in the old ways of thinking – still unable to lift themselves from the restrictive hierarchies and traditional manners, obsessed with status, parochial, self-absorbed, self-satisfied. They once saw themselves as the vanguard – the first of the new – but are seen today as the tail end of an ugly history – the last of the past.

Why then all the nostalgia? Well, despite the social and political chaos, the economy was booming. The country was growing so quickly, that it seemed to be getting richer quite literally before your very eyes. Jobs were plentiful, especially for college graduates. It was a more innocent time, more manageable, simpler. And there is a lot of nostalgia about. The TV show Reply 1988 immediately comes to mind, as well as more movies than you can shake a stick at – Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, Jang Joon Hwan’s 1987: When the Day Comes, Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (Bong Joon Ho is a quintessential 386-er – he entered college in 1988). In the British TV show Life on Mars, when the main character travels back in time, he returns to 1973. In the Korean remake, the central character returns to 1988. The Eighties, for better or worse, looms very large in Korea.

But Sunny is a different kind of movie. The lead character – an upper middle-class woman named Nami living a comfortable but dull and monochrome life with an emotionally-distant husband and an indifferent daughter, rediscovers an old high school friend who is dying. This motivates Nami to reconnect with her old gang of friends from that time. And if that sounds too depressing, the movie is actually quite the opposite. It is a warm and funny movie about friendship. Nami is nostalgic for her high school years, but the Eighties she revisits is not the exacting, lived, meticulously-detailed world of, say, 1987: When the Day Comes, but a fantastical one, a make-believe land. It is a world that is garish and bright, as if seen on an old-fashioned CRT television with the color tint set too high. And in this imagined world, high school girls are laying the beat-down on each other in the streets, amongst the violent clash of protestors and the riot police. Gatoo as ballet, nostalgia as fantasy, a make-believe world, a place that we wish had existed. This is the land of Downton Abbey where all the lords are strong, the ladies handsome and the servants above average. This creeping fantasy starts extending to the present – the catharsis of a middle-aged woman who confronts her daughter’s bullies, kicking their ass while wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform. “I don’t know if she’s a mental case or if this is cosplay,” says the cop on the scene. And then the fantasy extends into the future – where all becomes well, all problems solved, all our heroines happy and even the missing reappear. Nothing is real except what is in your mind, and happiness is found in your imagination, somnio ergo sum.

Shim Eun-gyeong, who plays the 1986 Nami is an extraordinary actor. She is not conventionally pretty, but she always commands your attention, bringing an incredible, relentless intensity to every character she plays – even, and especially, in the quiet moments. I recommend her in the film The Journalist as well as the TV drama Money Game. Yoo Ho Jung (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the conservative politician Na Kyung Won) is sympathetic as the adult Nami, and Kang Sora plays Chun Hwa (the leader of the group). Kang Sora was in the corporate drama Misaeng which is on Netflix and definitely worth watching.

The film has clearly resonated around the world and I suspect that it has much to do with its being about relationships between women – and importantly, relationships that do not revolve around men. Men play a very ancillary role here. It is about growing up, growing old, about children, about families and about friendship. Several remakes have already been made – including a Japanese version, an Indonesian version (full movie here), and a Chinese version. Apparently a Hollywood version is also in the pipeline. It is also interesting to note the different creative choices that were made in the different international remakes. For instance, the nostalgic period in the Japanese version is the chaotic Nineties of Tax Tower and the real estate crash, not the go-go Eighties when Japan was flying high. The Korean banana is replaced by the Japanese Cheeto-esque snack, and ignored entirely in the Indonesian version. The cast of the Japanese film includes Naomi Watanabe – a fabulous comedienne who was recently an innocent bystander in a ridiculous bit of nonsense regarding the Tokyo Olympics. My verdict after having watched all three versions? Better to be rich in Indonesia than in Korea or Japan.