Korean slacker student Kim Min (Lee Jun Ki) moves to Kyoto, Japan with his professor father, but has little desire to learn the language. Until one day at a local shrine, he meets beautiful Nanae Sasaki (Aoi Miyazaki). An aspiring painter, Nanae encourages Min to develop his pottery skills and they plan to collaborate on a ceramic artwork, growing increasingly fluent in each other’s language as they fall in love. Yet beneath her calm exterior, Nanae is deeply troubled. She and her younger sister (Miyu Yagyu) struggle coping with their alcoholic mother (Kimiko Yo) and her violent boyfriend. Before Min returns to Korea to tend his sick grandmother, the lover’s share their first kiss, but shortly thereafter Nanae disappears from his life with no explanation. Or so it seems.
Back in the Sixties, racial hatred between Koreans and Japanese were a hot topic among New Wave filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima. Happily, things have moved on since then and this culture clash romantic comedy-drama yokes gentle laughs from Min’s fish-out-of-water life in Japan. Although Min gets tricked into a kendo duel with Yasuji (Shun Shioya), the schools reigning champion, and bests a trio of bullies with some tae kwon do moves, the film quickly heads in a more positive direction with a serene, contemplative tone, you don’t find in American teen fare. Min befriends his rival, who delivers helpful advice on courting Japanese girls, and under Nanae’s gentle guidance blossoms into a genuine artist. What starts out as just an attempt to impress a girl, transforms him from an aimless slacker into a vibrant, engaging individual with a sense of purpose.
Part of a spate of romantic comedy-dramas that followed My Sassy Girl (2001), this doesn’t quite reach that high watermark but consistently tickles the funny bone and touches the heart. Much of its success rests with the fresh-faced likeability of the young leads. Lee Jun Ki makes a goofy and hugely endearing hero, while Aoi Miyazaki is soulful and charming and they remain so even when the plot briefly loses momentum during Min’s sojourn in Korea. As with My Sassy Girl, this starts out as a knockabout comedy (including a Min’s running feud with an angry, bicycle-riding monk, which has a neat payoff) and grows progressively more romantic and melancholy.
The action resumes two years on, as Min and Nanae are reunited and their previous misunderstandings are dragged on to a protracted degree. However, romantic movies from the Far East require that lovers reach an emotional maturity before they can be together and their confrontation is refreshingly awkward and honest. With a title derived from a romantic fable that states if a couple shares a date on the first snowfall they will be happy forever, you can guess a fairytale ending is on the cards. Cynics may recoil, but the characters are so genuinely, darn nice, you won’t begrudge them this too much.