Director says ’20th Century Girl’ tells first-love story with female narrative, ’90s vibe

October 24, 2022

The director of Netflix’s teen romance film “20th Century Girl” said Monday she wanted to capture an ordinary girl’s extraordinary moments from 1999 to make audiences relate to their own memories of first love and travel back to the end of the century.

Bang Woo-ri’s feature debut film follows a 17-year-old girl named Na Bora, who navigates her first love and the intricacy of female friendship, pairing Kim Yoo-jung and Byeon Woo-seok as lead characters.

Released Friday, “20th Century Girl” is the most-watched movie on Netflix Korea and ranked sixth on its global streaming chart.

A scene from Netflix film "20th Century Girl" is seen in this photo provided by Netflix. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
Bang Woo-ri, director of Netflix film "20th Century Girl," is seen in this photo provided by Netflix. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

A scene from Netflix film “20th Century Girl” is seen in this photo provided by Netflix. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Bang was surprised and glad to receive instant feedback from viewers at home and abroad with her debut work based on her personal experience of exchanging her diary with her friend in school, which was mostly about a boy her friend liked.

The 39-year-old said she wanted to tell a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a teenage girl living in 1999 to differentiate it from other Korean teen movies with male narratives and teen romance films from Taiwan and Japan.

“I wanted to make a teen romance film based on Korean culture,” Bang said in a roundtable media interview. “As this film was based on my own experience, I thought a broader audience could relate to it.”

The director admitted the film is a cliche-filled romantic comedy but introduced it as a uniquely refreshing story that would provide a glimpse of popular Korean culture, fashion and retro items.

“As the story goes back to the old time and evokes nostalgia, the plot makes it hard to avoid cliches. I decided to face the challenge head-on,” she said.

While the story’s main theme is about the teenage girl’s first love, it also tackles the delicate relationship with her female friend and agony of adolescence. The plot is quite predictable, but it is rewarding to watch until the end to discover a surprise ending about her first love.

To create scenes with pagers, camcorders and video tapes, she said the filming crews had to go through the laborious process of finding them and fixing them. As old electronics were often broken and ran out of parts, some items were shipped overseas for repair services.

She says the film tried to portray a certain warmth and a nostalgic feeling by using saturated colors and bright lighting.

“I was adamant in using saturated colors to portray the pulpy sentiment of first love and beautify the past,” she said.

Bang said she was at first worried the young cast members in their 20s might not understand the old-school feeling, but she learned that the fashion trends came back to the young generation more than two decades later. Among them are Nike’s Jordan low-top shoes, Casio-reminiscent watches and wide-leg pants.

“They seem old to us but were considered as new, special to them (the cast members),” she said.

Bang said the period movie was released at the right time, as mainstream audiences are looking for tales from the ’90s, as shown in the popular TV series “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” and the remake of the 2000 movie “Ditto,” which is set for theatrical release next month.

“Stories of the ’70s and ’80s were popular in previous years, but the retro obsession fast forwarded to the ’90s,” Bang said. “I think people my age have begun telling their stories.”

Like the main character, Na Bora, who later works as a voice actress based on her experience in high school, Bang said she ended up becoming a film director with her father’s inspirational comments on her.

“An unexpected incident in the past or trivial comments could define somebody’s future,” Bang said. “Sometimes, a simple word lasts a lifetime.”