Saturday, July 01, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Fantasy of the Girls

Why would high schools ever stage a production of Romeo & Juliet? It tells kids their teenage love is eternal and suicide is a valid answer when their parents object. Instead, they should be mounting shows that instill respect for their elders, like A Trip to Bountiful and The Sunshine Boys. Nevertheless, it is Romeo & Juliet the drama club at Sun Wha’s all-girls school will put on and it will definitely not temper their girl-crushes in Ahn Jung-min’s Fantasy of the Girls, which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Underclassman Sun Wha’s best friend has a huge crush on motorcycle-driving school thespian Hanam, so she coaches her to audition for the role of Juliet Capulet opposite her Romeo. However, as things will happen in teen movies, she winds up with the part herself. When she starts to rehearse with the rebellious Hanam, she starts to get her friend’s attraction. Meanwhile, Su-yeon, the student director, finds herself attracted to Sun Wha, giving her a double shot of jealousy, since she was also ambiguously close with Hanam.

And so it goes, with teachers an absolute non-factor and parents being a mostly ineffectual but reasonably pleasant presence in their kids’ lives. Basically, if you read a lot of school-crush yuri and yaoi manga, Fantasy is your cup of tea. In this case, it would be manhwa, but you get the idea. Ahn is also quite restrained and chaste in her approach. A little bit of hand-holding is about as risqué as the film gets.

It is also nice to see all the relevant parties are safely within the same age bracket. Frankly, the universal adulation for Blue is the Warmest Color and the upcoming Call Me By Your Name is quite problematic given their depictions of adults “initiating” not quite of-age teens in the love-that-dared-not-speak-its-name-during-the-times-of-Oscar-Wilde. Didn’t Milo Y. get run out of town on a rail for suggesting such behavior was acceptable? But we digress.

Regardless, No Jeong-ee is indeed quite winning Sun Wha, as is her BFF, but alas online credits are spotty for Fantasy. Nara is sort of stuck in ice queen gear for much of the film, but she certainly exudes coolness. However, the real standout is Cho Soo-hyang, who subtly and smoothly covers quite a wide emotional gamut as Su-yeon.

As a bonus, the periodic interludes depicting Sun Wha’s fantastical daydreaming are cleverly rendered and should appeal to NYAFF regulars. There are some terrific performances throughout the film, but the stakes are relatively low (granted, that is not necessarily a bad thing). In any event, viewers will identify with these characters and care about their very realistic, down-to-earth dramas. Indeed, this film is exponentially healthier than the dysfunctional and predatory Warmest Color. Recommended for fans of light yuri and high school coming of age films, Fantasy of the Girls screens on the Fourth of July at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.