SARAH LOHMANN WRITES – Romance and coming-of-age stories are comforting for many. Their familiar storylines are a space for viewers to revisit the excitements and struggles of youth with a healthy degree of separation, a safety cushion. For this reason, such films can risk being devoid of complexity. However, Korean director Bang Woo-Ri’s 20th Century Girl (2022) is unique. By infusing an otherwise simple premise with nuance in both story and cinematography, Bang is able to give the viewer a richer experience of the moving emotional palette of youth, love, and growing up.
20th Century Girl follows Na Bo-Ra, a high school student in 1999 Korea who seeks to get as much information about her friend’s crush as possible to help her get closer to him. Bo-Ra’s friend, Yeon-Du, is ill and cannot attend school for a while, but Bo-Ra does not want her to miss out. Originally premiering on October 6th, 2022 at the Busan International Film Festival, it became available to stream in over 30 countries on Netflix on the 21st. The film debuted at the 2nd spot on Netflix’s global chart of top non-English movies within only three days of its initial release. The film has also been described by critics as “heartwarming” and “dazzling” in its representation of nostalgic topics.
The film largely circles romance and adolescent hardships, but rather than sticking to a typical love triangle plot, Bang elected to permeate the story with the nuances of illness, social pressure, and well-defined characters. Bo-Ra is clumsy and awkward, but she is also stubborn, focused, and fiercely loyal to the point that it works against her own desires. However, she does not fall into any character archetypes of her genres beyond being the typical teenage girl. She and the other characters are not one-dimensional devices used to move the plot along. They are dynamic. This alone helps make the story more compelling because we can grow to care in the way we can about the stories told to us by our own friends.
The cinematography of 20th Century Girl uses color and light to highlight the fuzzy lens we often use to reminisce. A bright color palette steeps the viewer in emotional intensity and a youthful environment, usually awash with a clean, bright glow. Even in the dimly lit scenes, there is a dreamy haze. These components work in tandem to create an intensely nostalgic atmosphere. Similar to how we might see our own memories through the blur of time, Bang reminds us that what we see in 20th Century Girl is lovingly harvested from Bo-Ra’s past. It is framed and edited by her own nostalgia.
While it remains cemented in its genres, 20th Century Girl explores a more fluid and mobile version of youth, friendship, and love in all of its vibrant colors—both visually and emotionally. It is a film that moves its viewers as it moves its characters: with care and passion.
Sarah Lohmann graduated from Knox College with a BA in Creative Writing and Asian Studies. She focused her research on film, translation, and literature.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.