A feelgood Korean drama which the main character has a fatal and incurable disease, and who is writing an account for the benefit of loved ones when he is gone? Been there, done that.
Well, not exactly: when the director is E J-Yong and the movie is an adaptation of a Kim Aeran novel, you expect something a little different. And that is what you get.
For starters, this is not a romantic melodrama: Ahreum, the ailing protagonist, is not one half of a doomed romantic couple but rather the only child of two doting parents who is destined to die at the very age at which his parents gave birth to him, afflicted by a disease that has given him the body of an 80-year old when he should be entering the prime of his life.
And the account that he is writing is not one of his own experiences, but instead one in which he is trying to imagine his parents’ experiences when they were courting, aged 17. In fact, the movie is full of reflexive moments and themes of looking forward and looking back. Ahreum’s ajeosshi friend next door, Mr Jang (endearingly played by Baek Il-Seok), has a father who is suffering from dementia: at the end of his life, his brain is losing its faculties and becoming childlike, providing a counterpoint to Ahreum’s mature brain in a young but senile body. And some of the themes are beautifully captured in poem that Ahreum writes and that serves as a preface to Kim Aerans’s novel, from which the following is an extract:
My father sees his future eighty-year-old face in mine.
I see my future thirty-four-year-old face in his.
Distant future and unlived past gaze at each other.
And we ask: Is seventeen the right age to become a parent?
My father asks me what I would want to be if I were reborn.
I respond loudly, Dad, I want to be you.
He asks why him when there are better people.
I say quietly, shyly, Dad, I want to be reborn as you and father me
To know what you feel.
My father cries.
So this movie is not about romantic love (though certainly it touches on the subject as we explore how Ahreum came to be conceived). It is about other, equally important, things in life such as family relationships and how to approach the death of a loved one. The movie strikes a nice balance between seriousness and humour – the humorous elements largely revolving around his father Dae-su’s inept taekwondo skills and enthusiasm for the K-pop group Girls Generation.
The acting by Jo Seong-mok as the 17 year old in an 80 year old body is well observed, for example the way he takes off his glasses and rubs his tired eyes after a session at the keyboard, but sometimes he behaves like a nine-year old as he leaps into his father’s arms. What little we have of Kim Aeran’s novel translated into English portrays Ahreum as a psychologically mature individual, so the occasional childish behaviour in the movie would appear to be an aberration.
That niggle aside, this is a warmhearted movie which bears watching a second time, or even more, helped by Kang Dong-won and Song Hye-gyo as the boy’s doting and good-looking parents who are easy to watch throughout. The movie makes you eager for Kim Aeran’s novel to be translated in full, to enable a comprehensive compare and contrast.
E J-yong (이재용): My Brilliant Life (aka My Palpitating Life, 두근두근 내 인생, 2014)
My Brilliant Life screened on 28 June 2018 to coincide with Kim Aeran’s visit to London to be present at the prizegiving ceremony for an essay contest featuring some of her work – including a chapter of the novel on which this movie is based.