Well, I was right. Ahn Sung-ki confessed in the Q+A which followed the screening of Hwajang that one of his most difficult tasks in portraying Oh Sang-moo, a senior executive in a cosmetics company, was to project certain aspects of being old – of being blocked inside because of the swollen prostate, of being more in pain than the actual facial expression could reveal.
But he somehow succeeded. The sheer exhaustion on his face, the deliberation in his movement as he lay down to sleep in the room beside his wife’s memorial, the general slowness in the pace at which he moved, all spoke of his internal pain.
Hwajang, which won Kim Hoon the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award in 2004, is a story about a man whose beloved wife is dying of a brain tumour but who finds himself falling in love with a young colleague at work. The story attracted the attentions of a number of directors who wanted to adapt it, according to Ahn, who played the central character in Im Kwon-taek’s adaptation, “but Im was braver than the other directors.” Kim Hoon had reservations about how his work could be adapted: “My book is essentially about things that are unsaid and not directly shown, so I am curious to see how Im will portray this onscreen,” said the author,1 and in my previous article I point out a number of other features of Kim Hoon’s story that makes a screen adaptation a peculiarly interesting challenge.
Im’s film is an extremely sensitive adaptation of the novella, like an exquisite painting or a poem rather than a traditional narrative piece. As the needs of story-telling demanded, however, Director Im expanded the role of the young love interest, Choo Eunjoo, so that she takes a much more active part in the story rather than being the passive and unknowing object of Oh’s yearnings. Indeed, perhaps one of the less successful aspects of the adaptation is that it inadequately explains why Choo decides not to marry her fiancé and why towards the end of the film she seems to feel herself drawn to Oh, both of which are deviations from Kim Hoon’s story. But this is a small quibble. Kim Gyuri plays the role of Choo sensitively, carefully portraying the combination of business professionalism and restrained beauty that catches her boss’s eye. And her more active role creates more of a dilemma for the central character, forcing him to take more positive steps to remain faithful to his wife’s memory.
What is so beautifully done are the scenes which show Oh’s devotion to his wife, and in particular the intensely personal scenes where he washes her when she has fouled herself. Ahn Sung-ki described how one scene took a whole day to film before it was right. Kim Ho-jeong, who plays Oh’s wife, is better known for her stage roles but gives a heart-wrenching performance alongside Ahn Sung-ki, for whom this is the seventh film for Im Kwon-taek.
This is not a film for someone who wants a lot of action. It is a wonderful, autumnal work that deals with hidden and unspoken emotion, and which will leave you moved, touched and slightly melancholy. It is one of those films that will stay with you for a long time, and is a tribute to the skills of two giants of Korean cinema, director Im Kwon-taek and actor Ahn Sung-ki.
Im Kwon Taek (임권택) Revivre / Hwajang (화장, 2014)
- Reported in Blouin Art Info.