What better time to catch up on films you might not otherwise see than a long-haul flight from Seoul to London?
Of the ten Korean films available on Asiana flight OZ 521 last week:
- I’d already seen and enjoyed two (War of the Arrows and Leafie)
- Two were feelgood sporting movies – not my usual thing
- One had been universally trashed by the reviews (Be my Pet)
- One is coming up at the Terracotta festival this Sunday (Couples)
- One looked like a mainstream police actioner (SIU), while the synopsis of another, the appropriately titled Never Ending Story, looked so horribly clichéd that I immediately ruled it out1
That left A Reason to Live and Pain.
I should have caught up on some of the latest Hollywood films instead.
Pain (Kwak Kyung-taek, 2011)
Kwak Kyung-taek (곽경택) has never managed to live up to the success of Friend. Pain (통증) isn’t going to change that trend.
Q: What is the corniest, most irritating plotline in Korean film?
A: A person with a mysterious and / or incurable disease.
This film has two of them.
Invalid number 1: Sang-hoon (Kwon Sang-woo) is a man who can’t feel pain, has no sense of taste and is seemingly devoid of emotion. His job is getting beaten up for a living. Fortunately his analgesia also seems to give him superhuman recuperative qualities – broken bones and lacerations seem to heal instantaneously to enable him to go on to his next beating so much the quicker.
Sang-hoon hooks up with Invalid number 2, a cute girl (Dong-hyeon, played by Jeong Ryeo-won) with another incurable disease: haemophilia, from which she’s extremely lucky not to have died already.
Sang-hoon’s disease also seems to make him as thick as the planks with which he is regularly hit. Kwon Sang-woo does a good job looking gormless as he staggers from one beating to the next. The emotionless state of his character means that Kwon’s acting skills are hardly taxed, and in fact the real star of the show are his rippling muscles on the rare occasions he takes his top off.
Even as his relationship with Dong-hyeon blossoms, the script directs a gradual unlocking of a vestige of emotion within the unfeeling Sang-hoon, but Kwon maintains his face expressionless throughout.
“He cannot feel pain” one of the straplines to a promotional trailer accurately states.
“She can die from pain” says another, slightly less accurately.
“The dire pain she taught him” flounders a third, rather vaguely.
“Sad but beautiful” concludes a fourth, incorrectly on both points.
The only question to be answered is which one of the two will die first. I shan’t spoil it for you. But you won’t really care.
A Reason to Live (Lee Jeong-hyang, 2011)
Lee Jeong-hyang (이정향) debuted with a pleasant rom-com (Art Museum by the Zoo, 1998) and followed up with the surprise hit drama The Way Home (2002). One therefore has reasonably high expectations of her third feature. A Reason to Live is the bizarre English name for the vaguely-titled 오늘 (literally, Today). What is one to make of a film where the people behind it can’t think of a title which has any meaningful relationship to its theme? It’s a bad start.
Song Hye-gyo cries well as a documentary-maker (Da-hye) working on a church-promoted film about forgiveness. The theme of her film is simply that it’s good to forgive. The theme of A Reason to Live is somewhat more confused. The background storyline is that of violent criminals who persistently reoffend. The foreground main strand of a complex tangle of moral messages is that forgiveness by a victim without remorse from the offender achieves nothing other than a shortened prison sentence and therefore an earlier opportunity for the criminal to reoffend.
If Director Lee had restricted his storyline simply to that, we would have had the makings of a reasonable essay. But she introduces two further questions. First, should a criminal who claims to have got religion in prison be let out early? This seems to be a somewhat irrelevant question, and confuses the audience with two reasons why an undeserving criminal might have his prison term shortened. Secondly, Director Lee asks whether it is morally right for a family to conceal domestic abuse: in two hearsay examples we are given, the abuser goes on to commit violent crime against victims outside the family. Again it is an interesting moral question whether family ties and loyalty should come before ones responsibility to the wider community. But in the main example at the centre of the film – that of Ji-min being persistently beaten by her violent father, who happens to be a judge – we get no evidence that he is likely to commit mass murder outside the family.
Meanwhile, the irrepressible Ji-min (played by Nam Ji-hyeon) imposes herself on Da-hye, who does well not to give her a severe thrashing for being so irritating. But Da-hye is so meek and mild as to be equally irritating herself.
All the pointers in the narrative pull us towards the inevitable conclusion that offenders need to be locked up so that they don’t reoffend, and not forgiven. The ending therefore comes as no surprise: Da-hye realises that she’s been a twit, something that we could have told her in the first five minutes of the film.
Despite all this, the film could have been redeemed by a final 15 minutes of blood-spattered, exhilarating revenge. Then we could have gone home with a spring in our step. But alas, everyone in A Reason to Live is so wet we are not offered this release. A Reason to Live is one of those movies where you just want to slap everyone in the face to make them see sense. But they would just go ahead and forgive you.
A disappointing feature, then, which tries to do too much and fails. There are three films which could have been made examining each of the interesting and difficult moral issues raised. Trying to tackle all three issues at once, though, has resulted in a concoction rather too bland.
- Never Ending Story‘s synopsis runs as follows: “Dong-yoon, a nobody who lives with his sister, and Song-kyung, a hard-working bank teller who diligently makes plans for her future, meet in hospital when both of them are diagnosed with terminal illnesses.” Now that’s got to be one to avoid.