In recent years the LKFF programmers have been getting into a groove of scheduling indie, minority interest movies for the closing film of the festival. This year, they turned things upside down by programming the festival’s most appealing film (for me, at least,) to end the fortnight. Yes, the opening movie, Mogadishu, is the top performer at the Korean box office this year so far, but a big budget adventure story for me does not have the attraction of an Im Sang-soo movie. I’ve never found an Im Sang-soo movie that disappoints, and A Good Lawyer’s Wife remains in my list of all time K-movie greats. So his return to the big screen after a break of six years, particularly one that involves Im’s first collaboration with star actors Choi Min-sik and Park Hae-il, definitely has a strong appeal.
As he introduced the movie, critic Leigh Singer advised those of us who were familiar with Im’s work to expect something different, and in the Q+A afterwards one of the topics of conversation was how this movie was a departure from his previous “provocative” and “controversial” subject matter. When an audience member asked whether the fact that Park Hae-il’s character was too poor to afford life-saving drugs was a criticism of income inequality in Korea, Im basically said No: it was just a way of giving the character a backstory which gave him the motivation for acting the way he did.
Kind-hearted hospital orderly Han-sik (Park Hae-il) has Fabry’s disease, and the hospital authorities are on his trail as they hunt for the person responsible for a series of drug thefts. Prisoner 203 (Choi Min-sik) discovers on a visit to hospital that a recent seizure was caused by an inoperable brain tumour. With two weeks to live he wants to make things up with his daughter, and then spend his last hours by the sea. Both men have reason to run from the hospital, and in an entertaining and fast-moving sequence they make their getaway, incongruously, in a hearse containing a coffin which they later discover is stuffed with 50,000 Won notes.
I’ve always admired Im’s films for their slickness and visual qualities, and this one does not disappoint on that score. The two hapless fugitives are pursued by slightly bumbling cops wanting to return Prisoner 203 to jail and by some wonderfully formulaic gangsters wanting to get the cash. The two male gangsters are excellently typecast as is the glamourous moll with the long legs and cool shades, and the ailing boss played by Yoon Yuh-jung steals her brief scenes in front of the camera. The movie hums along in excellent form as our two mismatched lead characters, a bond gradually forming between them, ditch the hearse in favour of a moped and small truckful of watermelons, aided at various points be the judicious use of a taser.
The movie takes its name from a song by Han Dae-su, and as the movie shifts gears and moves into a more reflective, valedictory mood for its second half, three of his songs feature in the soundtrack (the title song also features in Hur Jun-ho’s Happiness). The tunes provide a suitable atmosphere of nostalgia and warmth for the closing chapters as Prisoner 203 manages to find his daughter and meets the end which was promised from the start.
The Q+A afterwards had a similarly warm and relaxed feeling, with Im, obviously at ease, grinning impishly most of the time as he schemed to give the most evasive possible answers to many of the questions. Was Choi Min-sik’s stunt with the watermelon planned or just an accident? We shall never know. What film will he be making next? He gave us three possible answers. Where were some of the wonderful locations for the movie (asked someone who sounded suspiciously like one of the English staff members of the KTO’s London office)? He was simply following Im Kwon-taek’s example of travelling the country picking the best locations (he was once the older Im’s assistant director). Why did he move on from his supposedly trademark provocative / controversial subject matter for this movie? Well, he just wanted to see if he could produce something more mainstream and popular (at the time of writing, no box office statistics are available for this movie, but it deserves to do well).
He claimed that working with Park Hae-il and Choi Min-sik was “painful” – they insisted on improving on his carefully-crafted script. And on a more serious note, Im commented that as he grows older (he’s approaching a mischievous 60 years old) he reflects more on what is important in life and what would constitute a “good” or “happy” death. Im’s attempt to answer this question in the movie is a little predictable but nonetheless comforting and satisfying; and the whole movie is a nice balance between the comic and the serious, the upbeat and the downbeat. It left the audience with warm feelings about the evening and the festival as a whole.
Im Sang-soo (임상수) Heaven: To the Land of Happiness (헤븐: 행복의 나라로, 2019)
Heaven: To the Land of Happiness screened as the closing movie of the 2021 London Korean Film festival on 19 November