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Han Sang-hee and the Art of Happiness

Matthew Jackson reviews “Virgin Snow” – the first film to be screened at the KCC, Tuesday 26 February

Virgin Snow

The Korean and Japanese cultural attachesThe screening of Virgin Snow at the new Korean Cultural Centre was the inaugural session in its programme of monthly film nights, and I felt it would be well worth attending for that reason alone. From the little I had read about it, the film itself looked like an average sort of heavy romance movie, which is not generally the kind I go for. I was pleasantly surprised.

Rice cakesThe centre provided an ideal setting. There was an opportunity to meet and talk with others before and after the film, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of exquisite rice cakes. The director of the film, Han Sang-hee, was present to introduce it and to answer questions. Being a joint-event with the Japanese Society, their directors were also in attendance (above left), and mention was made in the introductory speeches of the recent reconciliatory gestures between the Japanese and Korean governments.

Hang Sang-heeHan Sang-hee (left) stated that his intention behind making the film was ‘to depict purity and innocence’, and expressed the wish that ‘everyone who saw the film that evening would go home with a happy heart’. This struck me as unusual, and I was interested to see how the film would measure up to these claims.

The film is about a young, passionate Korean (Min) who travels to Japan with his father to study there for a year, where he meets an innocent Japanese girl (Nanae), and they form an attachment. ‘Form an attachment’ best conveys the way their relationship is depicted by Han, who in tune with his intention to portray purity and innocence, applies a delicacy and restraint to his characters’ actions that would not seem out of place in a Jane Austen novel. One day, Min makes a visit to his grandmother in Seoul, and finds on his return that Nanae is gone. They are eventually re-united, reconciled, and the film ends.

Han Sang-hee talks with Jeon Sung-min
Han Sang-hee talks with Jeon Sung-min

In terms of what actually happens in the film, there is not a great deal more to it than that. The plot complications consist in the language barrier, as neither of them speaks each other’s language, and the situation of Nanae’s alcoholic mother, the precise details of which Han characteristically leaves to the viewer’s imagination. There are some entertaining scenes in the school where Min is studying, including a tongue-in-cheek fight scene by the bike rack, and a dialogue conducted in a mixture of broken English and sign-language on the school roof, where a Japanese colleague advises Min on how best to court women from Kyoto. The easy relationship Min has with his father, the frantic bicycle races he has with the comical Zen monk, are all pleasantly interwoven into the main scheme of events.

Inside the KCCIt is very difficult to pinpoint where the substance of the film lies. It appeared from the questions at the end of the film that others were also puzzled by this question, and that some perhaps doubted that it had any. So far as this viewer was concerned, Han achieved both his objectives. Happiness, innocence and beauty pervaded the whole length of the film, and the result was something more profound than the ‘feel-good’ experience which Hollywood accountants have now managed to reduce to a science. In the end, the niceties of the contrived and ‘unrealistic’ storyline did not matter.

Inside the screening room, KCCThe next film on the KCC’s agenda (27 March) is Beyond the Years (aka A Thousand Cranes, Im Kwon-taek, 2007), a story of brother-and-sister musicians trained to perform pansori. I certainly won’t be dragging my feet.


  • All photos courtesy of Gemini Kim, (except for movie still at top of article)

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