Miss Granny (Su-sang-han geu-nyeo)

Korea (2014) Dir. Hwang Dong-hyu

Nobody likes getting old and there are many who try to stave off the aging process with plastic surgery the like. But what if you became young again without any surgical assistance and had a second chance at living your dreams?

Oh Mal-sun (Na Moon-hee) is a 74-year-old grandmother working at a cafe for the elderly run by her friend Park (Park In-hwan). Having brought up her son Ban Hyeon-cheol (Seong Dong-il) alone after being widowed at a young age, Mal-sun is a feisty woman whose forthright behaviour leads to her daughter-in-law Ae-ja (Hwang Jeong-min) collapsing from stress. The family blame this on Mal-sun and want to put her in an old folks home to allow Ae-ja to recover in peace. Feeling down Mal-sun discovers the Forever Young Portrait Studio and goes in to take what she deems her final photo. The photographer (Jang Gwang) promises to make Mal-sun look fifty years younger – which is exactly what he does as a twenty year old version of Mal-sun (Shim Eun-gyeong) leaves the studio!

After the draining and intense child abuse drama of Silenced director Hwang Dong-hyuk allows himself to enjoy a lighter project with Miss Granny, a body swap comedy that rocked the Korean box office, toppling animated juggernaut Frozen from pole position in the process. A lot of is rather preposterous as you may expect but Hwang also poses the question of what it means to be both young and old while pondering who we treat and behave around people in relation to their ages.

It’s almost half an hour before the big transformation comes when a despondent Mal-sun spots the photo studio and a photo of her film idol Audrey Hepburn in the window. This is important because post-transformation, the younger version ditches her granny clothes and tight perm hairstyle for something more suitable and modern – well for 1960 anyway. In order to disguise her identity, Mal-sun names herself Oh Doo-ri (Audrey. Geddit?) and takes a room in the housing complex run by Park’s daughter Na-young (Kim Hyun-Suk) to be near her family – including her grandchildren, wannabe rock star Ji-ha (Jin Young) and his idler sister Ha-na (Kim Seul-Gi).

In a reversal of the Tom Hanks classic Big we have an old woman trapped in a young woman’s body, meaning all of her mannerisms, choice of phrase and general attitudes are alive and well behind the younger façade. This raises some giggles as she gives breastfeeding advice to a young mother on the train or treats her young peers with elderly contempt, while enjoying old folks’ karaoke despite not being the target demographic.

This last facet becomes a pivotal plot point as Mal-sun gave up the chance to be a  singer when she gave birth, but as Doo-ri she is heard singing by TV producer, Seung-woo (Lee Jin-Wook), looking for the next big thing and Ji-ha, who is looking for a singer for his heavy metal band. Ji-ha gets there first but Doo-ri doesn’t like their image or their music, so they rock up the sort of old classics Doo-ri sings to create a new phenomenon. Oh and Ji-ha falls in love with Doo-ri…

Despite having 124 minutes to accommodate the wealth of story ideas this film is still too overlong, with 100 minutes being sufficient to tell the story. The focus seems to be on exploiting the comedy of a young woman with an old woman’s mind which works well enough while the musical career thread is rife with conventional and predictable plot elements. We don’t even reach the main crisis point until the 95 minute mark leaving the final act to somewhat sprint awkwardly to wrap everything up. Thankfully, after a safe and lachrymose denouement, we are treated to a witty coda which is so wrong it is right and ends things on an upbeat note.

Whether or not the story is plausible or preposterous in a film like this it lives and dies by the central performance and Hwang can rest easy that his leading lady Shim Eun-gyeong delivered the goods to make this work. It’s one thing to go against type when acting but to take on the mannerisms, affectations and personality of a different age group while maintaining a youthful verve isn’t easy. Shim, who made waves as a youngster in horror Hansel & Gretel and in the wonderful coming-of-age comedy Sunny, is a veritable dynamo here, tackling the comedy and the drama with equal energy.

Having to replicate Mal-sun’s brusque and argumentative manner leaves Shim prone to overacting but she is able to rein it in enough to make Doo-ri still likeable and amusing when sounding off like a cantankerous fish wife. Similarly veteran Na Moon-hee has seen a bit of a career resurgence lately with enjoyable turns in such fare as Twilight Gangsters and Harmony, and here she seems to be having fun as the spirited Mal-sun, particularly when feuding with glamorous café customer Ok-Ja (Park Hye-Jin), who flirts shamelessly with Park  (who has eyes only for Mal-sun).

Unfortunately between the two leading ladies and Park In-hwan, who is hilarious when trying to make himself younger to attract Doo-ri, the rest of the cast are pretty much human wallpaper. This isn’t good news for Jin Young, member of the Korean boy group B1A4, whose busman’s holiday debut film role doesn’t show off whatever personality he may have although he doesn’t embarrass himself either.

As a comedy fantasy it feels churlish to be too negative about Miss Granny since it does deliver a humorous and upbeat slice of frivolous entertainment. A tighter script, especially when handling the paradoxes of age reversal and more focus on the downsides of the transformation, along with judicious use of the editing scissors are the main areas in need of improvement, otherwise this is a hugely fun way to spend a couple of hours on a lazy afternoon.