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"Please Teach Me English"

Shannon Smith

Kimchi Casserole -- 'Please Teach Me English' -- South Korean students are under great pressure to learn English. Movies such as Please Teach Me English offer comic relief.

Depending on whom you're talking to, learning English is either Korea's national obsession or its national joke. To many students, the kind who, when foreigners pass them by downtown clap, point, and yell out, "Hello! I love you very much!" with a mocking smile, it's decidedly a joke. This is their play on something that has been forced on them during school hours and then forced on them some more, after school, when they go to "hagwon", the after school-school, that Korean kids go to for hours, every day, including weekends. Poking fun or not, many of these young people spend their teenhood consumed with passing college entrance exams and then move on to become college students fixated on getting a high score on the TOEIC exam, an English skill test that they must take in order to put a score on a resume when applying for jobs.

Lately, as all fads eventually do, this fascination with English, or at least, this pressure to learn English, has been turning up in all sorts of movies, ranging from teen comedies like My Tutor Friend to, in a sly maneuver, Park Chan-wook's follow-up to the Cannes-feted Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In Vengeance one character, a child killer, teaches English at a hagwon and another, the executioner's former accomplice, is perpetually reaching for her dictionary to translate what her daughter is saying. Lady Vengeance, Lee Geum-ja (played by Le Yeong-ae), gave her daughter up before she reached the age of two and the child was relocated to Australia while Lady Vengeance went to jail.

An exceptional moment in translation history occurs when Geum-ja kidnaps the ex-murderer turned English teacher (Choi Min-sik), with plans to kill him. But first, she gags him and binds him to a chair, a gun with her hand on the trigger boring directly into the back of his head. In front of him she sits her daughter, whom she has brought back to Korea, in order to apologize to her for giving her for up for adoption and to explain why she must return to Australia to live with her adopted family. The daughter translates for her mother's victim and the audience laughs despite the tense scene.

But in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, English is really just a gag in a masterpiece, not the focal point. To see how the fascination with English, or as Koreans call it, "the English boom", plays out most effectively, one really has to turn to romantic comedies. In particular: Please Teach Me English, in which Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), a low level civil servant, is forced by her coworkers, to learn English. At the start of the movie, near the close of a busy day, an English-speaking foreigner walks into Yeong-ju's office and every employee in the establishment literally ducks behind or under their desks, leaving Yeong-ju to fend for herself. As the foreigner drones on in a language she can't understand about being overcharged on his electricity bill, Yeong-ju nervously creeps into herself and introduces one of the movies strong points - her inner monologue.

In a country where body language often overshadows verbal language and custom mandates that people perpetually step around the words they would like to say, searching for an indirect, polite, way to make (or avoid making) a point, it's uncommon for an opinion to be stated without feinting or caging. Please Teach Me English gets around this superbly, to high humorous effect, giving Yeong-ju a running inner commentary, where her emotions can bubble over in sharp contrast to her surface appearance, which often remains quite calm. In this scene, she cringes helplessly behind the desk, the foreigner's voice growing ever, comically, louder, as if he's shouting through a megaphone, until she finally thinks, "You know if you've been there. There's only one thing to do -- just smile", and turns up the corners of her mouth to giggle a little. The foreigner, of course, becomes more enraged as he attempts, to no avail, to ask why she is laughing at him, in place of her explaining why his electricity bill is so inexplicably costly. Finally, the clock hands near 5PM and Yeong-ju ecstatically gasps, "Time over!"

After the encounter with the English-speaking foreigner, Yeong-ju's boss decides that one worker must attend an English hagwon. Yeong-ju sits through the office dinner, not even paying attention, confident, relating internally that since "Lady Luck despises her" there's no way she'll be chosen. Of course, when the boss turns a soju bottle round, using spin the bottle to choose who will become the English learner, the open end winds up pointing at Yeong-ju, who's so engrossed in her food she hardly notices. She leaves the dinner in a moody, annoyed funk that resembles the attitude of the foreign customer who departed from her office. Yeong-ju, asks herself, "What's wrong with being born in Korea and just knowing Korean?"

When she arrives at the hagwon, Please Teach Me English introduces its other finest technique, one that rivals the hilarious inner monologues: unexpected animation. All students who wish to take a class at the hagwon must first take a level test, which, of course, is usually a short written or oral exam. The movie, though, configures the test as a video game in which the Korean students face off against the native speakers. The most aggressive competitor is Moon-su (Jang Hyuk), an inept wannabe playboy who works in a shoe store and who will become Yeong-ju's love interest. He signed up for the English class because his sister, who his mother gave up for adoption at birth, will be returning from New York to Korea to meet them. He competes against Cathy (Angela Kelly, an actress imported from Australia), who wears pink spandex and boxing gloves. She becomes his love interest, that is, until the movie ends as all good romantic comedies tend to do, with him finally falling for the dorkish girl who's spent the movie pining for him.

Surprisingly, though, unlike a typical American romantic comedy, there's no dramatic make-over moment where Yeong-ju loses her glasses and discovers fashion and makeup -- she remains pigtailed, pretty but frumpily clad, throughout. Rather, it's Moon-su, who loses his playboy sheen and his fast-talking come-ons as the movie progresses, his inner romantic dork spilling out full tilt. Please Teach Me English hints at his upcoming downfall into humiliation and love in his pitiful demonstration during this video game level test. As soon as Cathy appears in her fighting clothes, he yells out, as random pedestrians are known to do to random foreigners on street, "Hello! Baby! Welcome to Korea!" Unlike the average real-life foreigner who usually either waves back, says hello, or just ducks their head, Kathy takes revenge, punching Moon-su, as this is video game, after all. Unfortunately for her, he hardly minds, as he exclaims, "You great sexy girl!", grabs her breasts and falls down with hands latching on to her butt. The combat continues in that fashion, broken English and sexual grabs, amidst vengeful punches and kicks, until Moon-su is booted off the game and into a low level English class.

In a later scene, the movie explores the dread that the Korean audience � or anyone studying a language or facing a test � feels when taking a final exam. Yeong-ju and Moon-su find themselves discussing dreams that they'd had about each other, and, more scarily, for them, learning English. Yeong-ju's begins with her wearing, for the only time in the movie, clothes that could be considered sexy - or properly fitting. She also sports hip black glasses in contrast to her usual pair, which are of style that has never before been fashionable. But her face is over-blushed, with two red circles on her cheeks, a bit like a clown, hinting to the audience that she can never be � or perhaps has no need of being � completely remade. And since after this scene she appears as her dorky self through to the end of the movie, it would be hard to consider it any sort of true make over.

Next to her sits, Moon-su, who by this time we know as "Elvis", which is the "English name" that Kathy gives him on account of his sideburns. More disastrously in English-name-land, Elvis chooses the name of "Normal" for Yeong-ju, when she refuses to think of one for herself. She later changes her nickname to "Candy", which the class snickers at but finally accepts.

But back in the dream - crashing through the windows and descending from the ceiling on ropes into the picturesque scene of Elvis and Candy comes a SWAT team of what seems like 10 or 12 native speakers, shouting, "Shut up! We will now conduct a test. Failure to answer will result in the gas chamber! Do you understand?" They bruise around the room, shining red lasers into the eyes of whomever they ask questions. On one side of the class, a line of those who answer correctly begins to form, while on the other side of the class is a longer line of those who could not answer their question. Those in the wrong answer line weep, with poster boards that say "gas chamber" hung around their necks. The SWAT men approach Moon-su, asking "What sort of women do you like?" For him the question poses no problem, and he replies, "I like gorgeous women!"

But when the men come to question Yeong-ju, she has slightly more trouble. They ask her, "What is your favorite movie?" She quivers, not understanding. They repeat. Then over the shoulder of the SWAT man questioning Yeong-ju, pokes the head of Cathy, who has become her friend rather than her competition by this point, mouthing "movie". That fails, and so they resort to spelling, simultaneously, the man's shout and Cathy's silent lips -- "M-O-V-I-E." Yeong-ju grasps the letters, saying, "Oh! Movie!... Zero! Zero! Seven!" She doesn't use complete sentences or even the words typically required of English students but the SWAT man gives her a break with, "Oh, you mean James Bond." Yeong-ju makes the hand motions of celebration as Moon-su blows her kisses... until... the SWAT man cuts in the with the questions, "WHY?" After that it's off to the gas chamber for Yeong-ju.

Although those scenes relate the tongue-tied fear of language learning, other scenes treat the subject more seriously and certain others delight in learning English. For example, after Moon-su tells Yeong-ju that he will never date a girl who doesn't speak English because he thinks "I love you" spoken in English is more beautiful than "Saranghaeyo", spoken in Korean. Yeong-ju and Moon-su continue their extracurricular activities by shouting out English words while out and about in the city, something a classmate of theirs recommends as the best way to practice the language, second only to eating the dictionary. Standing on a car Yeong-ju yells, "Come on English! I will master you completely!" At home, Moon-su stands on his balcony and announces to the Seoul night, "I am King of English! Cathy I love you! English coming soon!" His elderly mother tries to hush him, but he wants to teach her to say "I love Victoria!" - Victoria being the name of the daughter that the mother gave up for adoption years ago. Unfortunately before the neighbors call to them to shut up, all the mother can produce is "I love bacteria!"

Please Teach Me English continues, winding between fantasy, comedy, and a bit of drama, featuring plenty of hijinks and word play. These jokes range from the subtle, say, on a TV background tuned to CNN, a correspondent broadcasting from "A War in Somewhere", to the sublime, including a pig that learns a little bit of English. Along the way the movie teaches that English is alternatingly fun, funny, difficult, and ultimately worth it. Notably, Cathy marries a Korean and winds up, in the credit sequence, speaking only Korean.

* * *
Editor's note: This is Shannon's final installment of Kimchi Casserole, as its publication bookends her departure from Daegu to future travels and new studies.



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