opportunities. Sometimes they change your life and you don't
even realize it. Ever regretted not doing something that
could have been important to you? Ever found out that a
girl in high school liked you but never confessed? Those
things can be painful to discover, because they make you
rethink your choices, and how you could have changed the
past if you had acted in a different way. Timing can be
your worst enemy and shape your existence, and you can't
do a thing about it.
We've seen countless melodramas
from South Korea, many which were very good and some which
were really bad. For a number of years prior to the current
box-office boom, Korean cinema was associated with melodrama.
In the last five or six years, some directors (like Hur
Jin-Ho) have tried to stray from the formula and offer works
that used melodrama as a launchpad for different things,
and were successful in the process. Song Hae-Sung's second
film Failan (his first was Calla in 1999)
might be one of the most creative yet, offering a love story
between two people who've never met. And, it succeeds at
being more emotionally involving than many dramas featuring
lengthy moments of passion and romance between the two main
The brilliance of Failan
lies in its restraint from the beginning of the film to
the end. However, there's something warming up, waiting
in the background. It's an emotional crescendo that hits
you when you don't expect it and climaxes at the end (which
is close to perfection and pretty much the best final thirty
minutes I've seen since Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine)
like a nuclear bomb. The fact the film is so bleak, unglamorous
and crude for the first hour makes the transition of Choi
Min-Shik's character from pathetic third-rate hoodlum to
a gentle, caring, desperate man even more striking and touching.
As the film begins we're given
a portrayal of Kang-jae as a man that's almost impossible
to feel empathy for, let alone sympathy. His gangster life
is a failure; all he can do is bully young kids and old
broads, pathetically demand respect from his younger gang
brothers, and generally treat everybody around him like
crap. The only man he is afraid of is Yong-Shik, his boss
and a longtime friend. We realize all his bravado and arrogance
is a façade for a deeply flawed character, one who
has no love for anybody, one who steals pocket change from
an old woman, and that's right, one who uses the kitchen
sink as a toilet. You were expecting a melodrama and instead
you're getting a lurid Jopok (Organized crime) flick
about a shameless prick who can't get anything right.
Yong-Shik even tells him that he's
not made for this kind of life, he's too weak and doesn't
have the guts to compete in this dog-eat-dog world. Seeing
his life as a total mess, Kang-Jae confesses that he'd like
to buy a ship and go back to probably the only thing that
felt safe to him: home. Yong-Shik suddenly spots a rival
gang member and decides to make him pay for invading his
territory, and ruthlessly kills him in the street by bashing
his head against the concrete several times. The sight of
all that blood shocks Kang-Jae, and something tells him
that what he's experiencing is too much.
As a result of the accident, Kang-Jae
is given a choice. He can take the rap for Yong-Shik and
accept ten years in prison, or he can simply decline and
remain outside. There really is not choice for Kang-Jae;
if he declines, he'll be risking his life. On the other
hand, submitting to the boss' request will earn him respect
from the gang, as well as the boat he desires to sail home
in. Reflecting on his life, his decision doesn't seem too
difficult. After all, what's ten years to Kang-Jae? He's
not really living at this point - only surviving. And taking
one for the team would earn him the respect that he's craved
from his fellow gang members.
Until that point, the film feels
like an extremely lurid version of a Takeshi Kitano film,
with extreme realism, no glamour and no embellishment. We
see a bleak look at what it means to live in a gang life
and not belong to it. And how does Failan fit into all of
The moment Kang-Jae receives the
news that his wife Kang Failan has died of a fatal disease,
nothing comes to his mind. He goes along with what the cops
say because it probably wasn't the first time he'd participated
in a paper marriage, and provided a young lady the opportunity
to work and live in the country in exchange for her body.
On the train, his roommate begs him to learn a few vital
stats about his "wife," to not look suspicious,
but he's not really interested. He wants to go there, look
sad, sign a paper and go back home as soon possible. In
his mind there isn't Failan, but his important decision,
what will happen to him either choice he'll make, be it
going home or to jail for ten years.
This is where the film's brilliance
starts to form. What the first half represents is an incredibly
flawed man who's wasting his life, who can't find his identity
and is just going along for the ride. This is a man who
isn't capable of love and is only interested in himself.
However, underneath that something seems ready to emerge
and paint Kang-Jae in a different light. His character gets
developed in a way which makes his transformation even more
touching, because we share with him the change.
Failan might seem a character
that's too perfect. She possesses a kindness that's almost
childish, and an extreme innocence and goodness of heart.
There doesn't seem to be one bad thing you can say about
her. She seems too good to be true, but she represents that
which can change a person forever: kindness and love.
Failan is like an angel come from
above to save Kang-Jae, and it was the director's decision
to make her so sympathetic from the beginning. The fact
that her character is not developed as much as Kang-Jae
is not a flaw, because we come to understand more about
her along with Kang-Jae. His reactions to her almost mirror
ours. It's a well-developed crescendo that finally, inevitably
peaks when Kang-Jae makes contact with the dead body of
someone who never saw him but loved him nonetheless.
Making contact with Failan,
and getting to know her (through the people she knew, the
letters she wrote to him, her photos) creates something
in Kang-Jae. How could someone be so gentle with him, a
person nobody respected or took seriously? Failan's acts
of kindness show him a path that changes him inside. He
reflects on why he took his life for granted for so long,
and how he never had the chance to pay back all that sentiment.
Finally the decent man under Kang-jae's façade emerges,
and he comes to realize his missed opportunity. All he can
do from then on is try to live his life the way his wife
imagined it. He strives to be a better man, and to think
about what's really important to him. And, his decision
regarding Yong-Shik and his gang life are affected by these
changes as well.
After Failan, I think Choi
Min-Shik is quickly becoming my favorite actor. I liked
him in The Quiet Family and No. 3, and I loved
him in Shiri and Happy End. However, this
was just an incredible performance. He conveys the transition
Kang-Jae makes in a perfect way. The first Kang-Jae is a
pathetic man, a loser and a despicable person, but slowly
we come to understand how his feelings are changing, and
at the end his emotional display rings true.
His is not the only great performance
of the film, because Cecilia Cheung excels as well. Using
her spotty Mandarin (I thought I heard some Cantonese, too.)
and basic Korean she fits the image of the angelic, adorable
Failan perfectly. Her natural beauty, devoid of unnecessary
make-up and embellishments, make her even more believable.
And, her ability to hide emotions gives depth to her character.
This is certainly her finest performance to date.
What is Failan at the end?
Thanks to Song Hae-Sung's restrained directing and the fantastic
crescendo of emotions, this turns out to be a wonderful
work with a strong message. That message might be the most
predictable of them all: love can change people. Well, isn't
it more difficult to transform unoriginal themes into brilliance?