How I turned my life into a movieFour years ago, Choi Su-wan was a witty and exuberant 19-year old college student majoring in English and Korean languages.
At the time, the Choi family was badly in need of extra income since Ms. Choi’s father walked out of his banking job during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Even worse, her father had been conned by a swindler and lost most of his savings. The family moved about from one leaky-roofed shanty to another, and three of the kids in the family slept in the living room.
So one sunny afternoon in 1999, when Ms. Choi’s mother told her daughter that a friend’s son was looking for a decent tutor, the possibility of some extra income came as welcome news. “I was extremely thankful for the opportunity,” she recalls during an interview.
But never did she expect that the mundane act of tutoring a high schooler of the same age would eventually become fodder for a movie that would become a Korean blockbuster: Within a week of its Feb. 7 release, the film “My Tutor Friend” rose to the top of the film charts.
Then again, how could this young woman know that her student, Kim Jie-hoon, was a notorious menace who had forced a number of tutors before Ms. Choi to quit in humiliation?
It also helped that Ms. Choi was a committed writer, who dutifully tapped out her experiences ― in more than 20 installments ― on a community Web site that gained wide popularity among Internet readers.
During the first few minutes after Ms. Choi stepped into Mr. Kim’s apartment in Mokdong, southwest Seoul, she might have guessed her life would take a twist. She only knew from her mother that her employer was rich. But she was astonished at the opulence she encountered; the fancy, exotic furniture and abundance of stuffed animals in her host’s apartment were but two signs of this conspicuous wealth.
Entering her student’s room, Ms. Choi ran into her predecessor. The former tutor was picking up her personal books, but when she saw Ms. Choi the departing tutor advised Ms. Choi to quit when she still had the chance. Ms. Choi was bewildered at this remark.
Then she heard a violent voice booming from the hall. “I told you I don’t want another tutor,” shouted her soon-to-be student, Mr. Kim. According to Ms. Choi, the fellow was tall and skinny, his hair a mix of brown, silver and orange colors. “It’s not that he looked ugly but one of his sharp stares could really frighten anyone,” says Ms. Choi.
Mr. Kim’s sharp looks reminded Ms. Choi of a praying mantis. Actually Ms. Choi thought the spindly green insect was cuter than Mr. Kim. When Ms. Choi introduced herself to Mr. Kim, he glared at her and said, “Don’t look at me. With your looks, you must have a boring life.”
Thus began a bizarre relationship that lasted nearly half a year.
By this time, Mr. Kim had flunked his high school graduation exam twice. Ms. Choi says she later heard rumors that Mr. Kim was a skilled fighter but had little interest in studying. “Before I met Jie-hoon, I never knew low [exam] marks such as eight or 17 points out of 100 existed.”
Mr. Kim told his tutor that he never finished marking the answers during a test; he would only mark down a few answers and sleep through the remainder of the test period. “His family was so wealthy that he knew he did not have to really work hard at anything,” says Ms. Choi.
The only thing Mr. Kim feared was his father. During their time together as tutor and student, the nattily dressed Mr. Kim would constantly poke fun of her looks and her flat chest.
“I did look shabby with my thick glasses and worn jeans,” concedes Ms. Choi, who has since matured into a lithe, attractive woman with hair reaching nearly to her waist.
Mr. Kim would smoke while studying, which bothered Ms. Choi immensely. When she asked him to limit his smoking to breaks, Mr. Kim answered, “I’m smoking because I get stressed out looking at you.” The impudent student would also answer his cell phone calls during teaching sessions.
Despite the insults lobbed at her, Ms. Choi never raised her voice. Instead she admitted to herself that she wasn’t too attractive. Meanwhile, she continuously encouraged Mr. Kim when he did something like complete his homework or look up a word in the dictionary.
“Jie-hoon is simple-minded and hot tempered but he’s pure at heart,” says Ms. Choi.
Mr. Kim slowly opened up to Ms. Choi and eventually began to digest what she taught him. Later the two made a wager: If his test score surpassed 50 points, Ms. Choi would wear a hideous red outfit. At this point, Mr. Kim showed amazing concentration and achieved 48 points.
“It was frightening how this guy could really concentrate on one thing if he set his mind to it,” says Ms. Choi. “Since then I never bet Jie-hoon again.”
A year later, Mr. Kim went to college and Ms. Choi, who had succeeded in turning the troublemaker into a college student, taught Mr. Kim’s little brother for a year. One year after her tutoring stint with Jie-hoon ended, Ms. Choi began writing her story and putting it on the Internet. She had no intentions of achieving fame. “I only wrote the story to appeal to anyone interested that a person such as Jie-hoon existed,” says Ms. Choi jokingly.
Since childhood Ms. Choi has taken great pleasure in reading literature and writing. Ms. Choi claims to have accumulated 100 diaries.
A longtime friend, Ryu Min-a, affirms this statement. “Su-wan really loves writing,” says Ms. Ryu. “For my birthday, she gave me a collection of notes that had little letters addressed to me which she wrote during her spare time. Su-wan likes to release her stress through writing.”
Her episodes with Mr. Kim were soon picked up by Internet readers, young Koreans from teenagers to office workers in their earlier 30s. “People began urging me to write the next story,” says Ms. Choi. “I had never expected my story to be so popular.”
By the fall of 2001, movie directors began approaching her, eager to put her intriguing tutoring tale on the big screen. She chose the first film company, who then quickly hired a writer to develop the script.
More than a year later, the movie based on Ms. Choi’s story was released in theaters across the country. Within a week the 110-minute film rose to the top of the charts, where it remains today.
“Within three weeks of opening we had an audience of over 3 million,” says Aum Joo-young, marketing manager for CJ Entertainment, the movie’s production company. “Its popularity is a complete surprise.” Thus far, the distributors of “My Tutor Friend” have made 9 billion won ($7.5 million) in profits.
“My Tutor Friend” has mostly received thumbs-up responses from reviewers. One critic said the movie is “perfect entertainment.” Another said “it’s not arthouse quality, but at least it’s hilarious.” A third reviewer called the film “a comedy, but not a nonsense comedy.”
When Ms. Choi visited the film company’s Seoul office, the staff rushed her with a movie script to sign.
The sudden fame, she says, has changed little in her life, other than providing her with 10 million won thus far. “I could only become who I am because of all those who took an interest when I first wrote the story,” says Ms. Choi. “My reward is having an audience really enjoying the movie.”
Ms. Choi says only a few details were altered from reality in the final script. For example, her family never ran a chicken restaurant, as “My Tutor Friend” has them doing.
Ms. Choi will pursue a graduate degree in Korean literature at Ewha Womans University starting next month. “I still enjoy writing and I’m planning on writing a sequel to ‘My Tutor Friend,’” she says. “But that does not mean I’m going to become a professional writer; it’s just that I enjoy writing and I would like to leave it as a hobby.”
Ms. Choi continues to tutor. Recently she taught a French-Korean, who spoke little Korean. “He was really good looking but when he spoke Korean it ruined the romantic atmosphere,” says Ms. Choi. “He spoke like a mentally retarded kid.”
A female sergeant at the Korean Ministry of Defense is another current student. Says Ms. Choi: “While other people get normal students, I get the most unlikely bunch.”
Since the movie’s debut, Ms. Choi says the most frequent question she hears is what happened between Mr. Kim and herself. In the movie, romantic feelings develop between tutor and student. How about real life?
“Nothing,” says Ms. Choi. “Although I sometimes did sense Jie-hoon getting jealous when guys called me. But in reality nothing happened between us and on top of that I wanted to live. If I had dated him my life would have been shortened by his hot temper.”
When Kwon Sang-woo, who played Mr. Kim in the movie softly called out her name on screen to the actress Kim Ha-neul, Ms. Choi admits being overwhelmed.
“No one has ever called my name with such a soothing tone,” says Ms. Choi. So at a movie opening bash, Ms. Choi asked Mr. Kwon to call her name just as he did in the movie. He complied, adding the familiar words, “Don’t look at me.”
Even with the movie’s success, Ms. Choi feels like it’s somebody else’s party. “My name is mentioned everywhere but I don’t feel like it’s about me. It’s still like a dream.”
Reportedly, Mr. Kim now resides in Britain. “Thank God he’s in another country,” she says. “He would kill me if he knew what I’ve done. Hopefully, he won’t be back until everyone forgets about this movie.”
Would she tutor Mr. Kim again? Ms. Choi smiles, and says she would. “It was a memorable experience ― and the pay was great!”
by Lee Ho-jeong