A joyous Vietnamese remake of a modern Korean classic, that’s simply way, way better than it has any right to be…
Hiểu Phương (Hồng Ánh, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait) is a financially well to do Vietnamese housewife, whose biggest challenges seem to be a busy but nice husband, a difficult teenage daughter and a sick mother. When visiting her mother in hospital, she chances upon a familiar name on the door of one of the private rooms. And upon further investigation, she finds it is indeed an old friend, Mỹ Dung (Thanh Hằng, The Lady Assassin), who is stricken with terminal cancer. The pair strike up a conversation, and Mỹ asks Hiểu if she could help fulfil a final wish – to get together their old gang from their schooldays – “The Wild Horses”. Hiểu agrees to gather the other four girls, and the film embarks on a dual track from that part on, exploring both the present, and the girl’s formative days back in 1975.
Wait up Stephen! This sounds familiar! Isn’t that exactly the plot of the 2011 South Korean film Sunny starring Shim Eun-kyung? And you’d be right! Go-GoSisters is basically a remake of that film, but all about board and done as a joint venture with CJ Entertainment. In fact, there is also going to be a Japanese version released later this year. You might also remember a similar thing was done with Vietnamese and Mainland Chinese versions of 2014’s Miss Granny a while back. It does seem that Shim Eun-kyung films are ripe for this sort of re-deployment.
So long story short, Go-Go Sisters is fundamentally a 95% copy of Sunny in terms of story. It’s got pretty much the same characters, with the same motivations, mostly exactly the same scenes, identical story beats. It just transplants 1980s/2010s South Korea with 1970s/2000s Vietnam. One male character is transformed into something else, and the Chubby girl character is given a rather different modern story and motivation (she’s equally as brilliant though). The younger version of Hiểu Phương, played by Hoàng Yến Chibi even sports an identical haircut to Shim Eun-kyung.
But to say it was a copy is doing the film an immense disservice. Director Nguyễn Quang Dũng (The Lady Assassin) has managed to build on the model of the former film and add to it superbly. This doesn’t just mean adding Vietnamese historical touches in terms of costuming and touching on actual historical events (such as the fall of Saigon in 1975, and the visit of President Clinton in 2000), but it means dressing the film up in a wonderful display of colour, and most importantly music. He uses Vietnamese pop songs, both authentic and those written for this film, as well as music cues that I swear come from modern Korean romantic dramas (but that might be just me projecting). Sadly he eschews the use of Boney M’s version of Bobby Hebb’s Sunny that would have been a nice nod to the movie’s roots, but all in all, the film is a fun aural experience. He even manages to sneak in a homage to Singin’ in the Rain as one point – it is these touches of whimsey that raise the movie up from a simple remake of a great film.
Performances in both time eras are great, but special credit has to go to the child actors. Each of them is imbued with charm and individual characteristics that make them a joy to watch, even when some event gets somewhat dark. Hoàng Yến Chibi is especially fantastic, easily carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders, even though this is mostly an ensemble piece.
Is it perfect? No. Whereas Sunny was able to brush against the Gwangju Uprising without appearing too heavy-handed, Go-Go Sisters does not quite manage the same feat in using the end of the Vietnamese War as its touchpoint. You’d never know a war was being fought to be honest, other than some political talk at the Phương dinner table and a tannoy announcement near the end. It has the same strange failing as its progenitor movie, where it fails to deal with the after-effects of an attack on one particular character, and doesn’t bother explaining her grown-up version not turning up until *spoilers*.
Go-Go Sisters really surprised me. It took source material that I thought to be rather fabulous, but that felt utterly Korean, and turned it into something that works both as a cover version, and as a hugely enjoyable film in its own right.