By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: September 20, 2007
Once people get stuck with the same fate, a bond can grow between them instantly; however, the relationship can fall apart fairly quickly if the common ground vanishes. Director Hur Jin-ho’s “Happiness” portrays a heart-wrenching drama in which bonding and parting take place over some period of time, accentuating the emotional depth of a relationship that is torn apart due to the ruinous fusion of addiction and affection.
In the film to be released on Oct. 3, Young-su (Hwang Jung-min) symbolizes the precariousness of life in the fast lane. A serious alcoholic, he drinks, drinks, drinks to the point of going blank at the trendy nightclub he runs. But his super-fast life skids to a thumping halt when he is diagnosed with a debilitating disease, cirrhosis of the liver. Jilted by his girlfriend, an equally addicted individual — in this case, to meaningless consumption and a wasteful lifestyle — Young-su hands over his nightclub ownership to his close friend, and reluctantly heads for a sanitarium in the remote countryside, where there will be no more booze, no more gals.
In the sanitarium, Young-su encounters a calm, soft-spoken girl with a pale face. Eun-hee (Lim Soo-jung), who has stayed at the facility for the past eight years, is struggling with a rare and serious lung disease, yet she remains upbeat and gentle. And she walks slowly and moves her body cautiously as if a single misstep might break her life into pieces. Yet, in a cheerful way, she tells Young-su that she has already lost about 40 percent of her lung, and a doctor says she might die if she ventures out to run fast.
Young-su and Eun-hee stand at the opposite end of the lifestyle spectrum. He is yet to shed his old habits of the city – drinking, smoking and clubbing – and she leads her quiet, disciplined life in this rural setting. When they fall for each other in an unlikely spot nestled deep inside a mountainous area, they seem to forget where they come from. And they develop a bond that is immediately addictive, something that Eun-hee has experienced before. After a passionate kiss, Eun-hee shares her feelings about endless, almost addictive desire: “When I was kissing you, though it may sound strange, I wanted to kiss you more, and even more.”
Thanks to her dedicated efforts and great caring, Young-su’s health steadily recovers. It’s a ‘happy’ development for Eun-hee, because his improved health means their nature-friendly, vegetarian and substance-free lifestyle has paid off nicely. But the same development does not come as a happy one for Young-su, who suddenly feels that his lifestyle has changed too much. He misses the old days when he indulged in alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and easy sex.
Director Hur carefully achieves a cinematographic distance when he depicts Young-su’s struggle with addictive habits. It’s true that it takes a tremendous amount of energy, patience and willpower to quit drinking and stay sober. At the same time, it’s also resoundingly true that old habits die hard. In a telling scene, Young-su finishes the day’s farm labor and gets paid; then the farmer who has hired him gently pushes a cup of beer to Young-su. At this critical moment of temptation, Young-su hesitates for a moment, about 10 seconds, puts his hand on the beer and gulps it down quickly. With a knowing smile, the farmer delivers an illuminating line: “No drinking and no smoking is surely good for your health, but without them, there’s no fun in life.”
Happiness, after all, depends on one’s perspective. For Young-su, happiness means hitting the fast track and indulging his pent-up desire at a night club amid heart-thumping rock music, even though his health and long-term welfare may go down the drain. For Eun-hee, happiness implies decency, self-sufficiency, frugality, modesty and caring for others, especially her loved one Young-su, even though she is staging an uphill battle to extend her life.
Their views on happiness are poles apart — so much so that when the falling-for period switches jarringly into a falling-out, she goes out and runs. She doesn’t care even if she may die running like that. Death is not her primary concern.
In “Happiness,” award-winning actor Hwang Jung-min shows off his versatility to the point of sheer shock and repugnance. Toward the end of the film, Hwang’s Young-su character is so realistically portrayed as a callous and ungrateful man that audiences might not have any sympathy left when he turns a critical corner in his tumultuous life.
Lim Soo-jung also tops expectations by playing a difficult character with a rare finesse that adds a counterbalancing comfort to the touching interplay between addiction and affection.
Director Hur’s efforts to keep sentimentality to a minimum also deserve credit for making the film a thought-provoking tale that transcends the confines of a typical melodrama. For a gentle reminder of where he stands on the matter of the impenetrable human mind, he also clearly depicts the symbolic name of the sanitarium, “House of Hope.”