Choi Bo-Na is a meek, "ugly" production assistant who cannot get ahead in life. She hides from the world within hooded sweatshirts and watches others succeed as she sinks lower into loneliness and professional obscurity.
Then one day she comes across a series of video tapes entitled: "How to Use Men With Secret Tips." The video's assertive narrator teaches her not only how to get ahead in a man's world by smiling more, doing her hair, and wearing pretty dresses, but even tells her advanced techniques such as how covertly spit out alcohol while on dates and how to make men her slaves by withholding sex.
If any of that sounds the least bit sexist, you're not alone. This is very much the story of a young lady who benefits greatly by changing herself to better fit society's (South Korean society, mind you) image of how a woman should look and act. There's no scene where she regrets her transformation or chastises anyone for ignoring her when she was nerdy. On the other hand, the treatment of men as big dumb animals who exist only to be manipulated probably has enough juice to anger Men's Liberation jerks as well. It's equal-opportunity sexism!
Still, this is a romantic comedy, and noxious gender politics have never been the genre's strong suit. How to Use Men With Secret Tips may be more brazen than we're used to, but it still plays by the same basic rules as most of its ilk.
And it does one or two better by being actually funny. How to Use Men With Secret Tips is filled with jokes, most of which work incredibly well. This is one of those post-Scott Pilgrim and Detention films which throws constant fourth-wall breaking text and graphics at you to convey information in fun, fresh ways. Bo-Na does not just sit and watch the series of tapes. They invade the narrative whenever needed, sort of like The Hitchhiker's Guide. Regardless of where Bo-Na is, if she comes across a problem, Park Young-kyu appears decked out in clothes that loudly match his surroundings and teaches her (us) the next lesson in how to use men with secret tips. Sometimes this is just a matter of reminding her to walk with confident posture. Other times it's an in-depth, illustrated guide to the biology behind blue balls. These interludes are across the board hilarious, and supply a grand portion of the film's fun energy and fresh aesthetic.
Lee Si-Young is amazing as the harried Choi Bo-Na. Effortlessly adorable, Lee starts the film as a nerd but not a victim and feels likable and unique from the get-go. Her comic prowess is assured, particularly early on as she awkwardly tries to come out of her shell and make these lessons work for her. It's remarkably telling, however, that her singular charm seems to fade as her character becomes more homogenized. By the time the film is over, Bo-Na is really just another bland lady, and it's huge loss.
Her character's love interest, a famous actor with whom she had an adorable run-in long before his success took off, fares much better. Oh Jung-Se is obviously very handsome, but there's a manic insecure goofiness about him as well. As Bo-Na's techniques bait and win him over, her control over the situation is matched by his spiraling lunacy, which makes her transformation into a boring every-girl a little easier to swallow since we still have something funny to watch.
The film rolls along merrily for two fun-filled acts of adorable whimsy. Once it hits its third act, however, everything grinds to a halt. How to Use Men With Secret Tips is about twenty minutes too long and they're all at the end. As usual for this genre, complications arise which keep the lovers apart, but they are given way too much screen time and utilize drama instead of comedy, abandoning the film's strong suit for something more typical and boring. The funny VHS instructional video bits dry up, as does any charm or likability from the leads. Once we finally get to the perfunctory happy ending, it's almost too late for us to care.
Still, there is a lot to enjoy about How to Use Men With Secret Tips, especially you're already predisposed toward romantic comedies. It has a lot of problems, but most of them only become apparent in retrospect. It's probably not the best guide to life, however, unless you're a guy and you find yourself in some kind of Bosom Buddies situation.
How to Use Guys With Secret Tips is an official selection of the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.