Miss Granny is something of a departure for Korean director Hwang Dong-hyeok, whose previous two films have both explored fairly weighty subjects - firstly in The Father which, based on a true story, features an American adoptee looking for his father only to find him languishing on death row, and more recently in Silenced (also known as The Crucible) which depicted the harrowing, and again true, events that occurred at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the deaf in which pupils were routinely abused by teachers and staff. So far as we know, Miss Granny is not based on a true story and is a more mainstream comedy in which a “difficult” old lady suddenly finds herself transformed into her 20 year old self.
At the beginning of the film, Oh Mal-soon is a bad-tempered 74 year-old woman who terrorises everyone around her into submission, including her middle aged daughter-in-law who eventually lands up in the hospital with a heart condition that may in part have been brought on by Mal-soon’s constant criticism. Mal-soon’s son faces an impossible choice: ship his mother off to a home and give his wife some peace, or risk losing either his marriage or his wife by keeping his mother around. Heartbroken at the thought her son may be about to abandon her, Mal-soon wanders around the city before deciding to enter a mysterious portrait photographers and dolling herself up for a “funeral photo”. However, when she emerges she’s mysteriously transformed into a lithe and pretty 20 year old! Suddenly young again with potentially a whole life in front of her, what sort of choices will Mal-soon make this time around?
Much of the comedy of Miss Granny centres around the young Mal-soon, renamed Oh Doo-ri after her favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn, speaking and acting as if she really really were a 74 year old woman with all of the freedoms (and the invisibilities) that age grants you. Snapping away in her thick rural dialect and handing out unsolicited advice in the way only a nosy old woman can, Doo-ri is a very strange, and perhaps a slightly frightening, young woman. Undoubtedly, as we find out, Mal-soon has had a difficult life - starting out as an upper class woman before becoming a young, penniless single mother dependent on the kindness of others and doing everything in her power to ensure that her son will grow up a fine man. Life has made her hard and in turn she makes things hard for all around her.
As a young woman she’s initially much the same, yet comes to understand something of who she was and who she is. In her younger days she dreamed of being a singer and even as an old woman was well known for her fine voice. After unexpectedly jumping up to sing at a senior’s event in order to best another old lady rival she’s “discovered” by a producer who’s tired of all the soulless idol stars who walk across his stage. Doo-ri is exactly what he’s been looking for, a young and pretty face with a voice that’s full of a lifetime’s heartbreak. Here is the real coup of the film - the younger actress, Shim Eun-kyung, reinterprets these classic pop songs from 40 years ago beautifully with exactly the right levels of pain and regret perfectly matching the montage flashbacks to Mal-soon’s youth. Becoming young again, experiencing everything again as if for the first time - opportunity, romance, friendship, Mal-soon finally begins to soften as if some of the harsh years of her original young life had been smoothed away.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and Mal-soon eventually has to make a choice between her newly returned youth and something else precious to her. She comes to understand that however hard it was she’d do it the same all over again, because the same things would always have been the most important to her. Though it’s far from original and drags a little in the middle, Miss Granny still proves a warm and funny tale that walks the difficult line between serious and funny with ease and throws in a pretty catchy soundtrack to boot.
Miss Granny was screened as part of a strand celebrating the 20th anniversary of CJ Entertainment during the 10th London Korean Film Festival in 2015.