[Review] ‘Happiness’ a moving tale of addiction, affection

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.”

[Review] ‘D-War’ upgrades computer graphics

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: July 25, 2007

In making a film heavily dependent on computer graphics, it is tricky to strike a balance between storytelling and special effects. Director Shim Hyung-rae has staked almost everything on the latter — for better or worse.

“D-War,” directed and written by Shim, a former comic actor, showcases the full potential of home-grown CG technology, offering a stream of Hollywood-style chase-and-destroy scenes.

All the visual effects have been crafted by Shim’s own studio, Younggu Art, and the outcome — computer-generated monsters, cars flying over, buildings destroyed — is impressive, though not spectacular enough to elicit real shock and awe from today’s audiences, many of whom are already familiar with similarly effects-heavy movies.

Director Shim seems to believe that the film’s primary merit lies in the quality of CG (computer graphics), justifying his tireless efforts in the past six years to produce the country’s most expensive film, which cost about 30 billion won ($33 million) and is targeting U.S. and international markets. The movie gets off to a slow start with a relatively long exposition. Ethan Kendrick (Jason Behr), a TV news reporter, notices something strange when he arrives at a disaster scene in Los Angeles. He suspects that his past memory has something to do with the mysterious incident.

When he was young, Ethan dropped in at an antiques shop where he met Jack (Robert Forster), who explained an old Korean legend. Every 500 hundred years, a bad imoogi called Buraki (a serpent yet to be morphed into a dragon) emerges to threaten the world, and Ethan was an ancient warrior who saved a Korean girl destined to deliver the crucial yeouiju, or dragon ball, that allows an imoogi to transform into a dragon.

Ethan sets out to find the girl who holds the key to the fate of the world, and he finally encounters Sarah (Amanda Brooks) with a red-dragon tattoo on her shoulder, who was the Korean girl in her past life.

From this point on, “D-War” turns into a full-fledged monster movie, with Buraki and its minions chasing down Ethan and Sarah in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. With few lines delivered by key characters, giant serpents and fully armored soldiers a la “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” march on the street, dominating the screen in the latter half of the film.

Noticeable are fast-paced airy battle scenes where army helicopters are engaged in a fierce showdown with the flying monsters. On the ground, Buraki lays waste to cars and buildings, intent on finding the predestined girl — an assortment of visuals that remind viewers of a typical Hollywood monsterfest like “Jurassic Park.”

Eerily missing, though, is the absence of a good imoogi, who supposedly fights the bad serpent Buraki. Although there is a final showdown between the good and bad imoogi, it remains a mystery why the good serpent has to wait so long.

With director Shim entirely devoted to visual effects, some of the scenes seem puzzling and incoherent. For instance, Ethan gets shot by an FBI agent in a nearly fatal development. But it takes less than a second for him to recover and run again, as if nothing — even a hard bullet — can harm him.

The most disappointing aspect is the total absence of humor throughout the film, and this is strange given that director Shim was formerly the country’s top comedian. During the 92-minute running time, there is not a single scene designed for laughter. All the characters are deadly serious, as if all the monsters are real, and the world’s fate is really handing by the thread. Worse, all of a sudden, the central stage moves to a fantasy land that is dark and gloomy — an extremely cartoonish setting that does not fit in with other mostly daylight scenes of downtown Los Angeles.

Director Shim seems to be deeply proud of the fact that his film has finally made it to the U.S. market with special effects on par with Hollywood monster flicks. But it remains to be seen whether his extreme focus on such superficial aspects of a film may bear fruit at the box office at home and abroad. After all, even superb computer-generated graphics does not make up for a poorly written script.

[Review] ‘Crying Out Love’ weaves tale of lost love

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: Oct. 14, 2004


She inserts a tape into a Sony Walkman cassette player. When the tape begins to roll, she is frozen on the street. People are moving behind, but she just stands there, dumbfounded, extremely shaken up.

With the light changing in a subtle fashion, the mysteriously lonely glow of her eyes turns into searing sadness. Seconds later, a stream of tears run down on her pale face. The audience gets no explanation for her action, yet the scene is inexplicably powerful and maddeningly moving.

That’s a masterly performance of Kou Shibasaki, who plays a supporting role in the opening scene of “Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World,” a new Japanese romance blockbuster that opened on Friday amid relatively subdued public attention.

It is remarkable that Shibasaki, one of the most celebrated Japanese actresses (she paired up with entertainer extraordinaire Takura Kimuya in a TV drama “Good Luck”), is not a main character in this movie directed by Isao Yukisada.

Yet her role is bigger than it seems. The movie sold more than 7 million tickets in Japan in just 10 weeks of its formal opening this year, a truly eye-opening record that is greatly bolstered by the original best-selling novel.

When the book was first published, nobody but a female bookstore worker in Yokohama paid attention. When she read it and put an advertising poster saying “I’m crying because of this book” in the front window, the title saw its sales surge. And a momentum, which is still roaring at this point, came from Shibasaki who also read the book and confessed that she finished the book in one sitting while crying throughout her read. Afterward, the sales soared, crushing all the records. More than 35 million copies — a breathtaking achievement by any standard — are estimated to have been sold in Japan so far.

The question is whether the feverish craze will be repeated in Korea, one of the most dynamic cinema markets in Asia in recent years. Previous Japanese romantic flicks like “Love Letter” were largely disappointing on the box office partly because ardent fans here already watched many of renowned films through a pirated VHS version or a digital format over the Web.

This time around, however, a pirated camcorder or Divx format of “Crying Out Love” is not circulating on the Web — at least for now — and a horde of fans are simply flocking to the theaters. Some are watching it over and over, showing signs of “addiction,” says Film Space, a marketing company for the film.

What makes this movie so special? Well, this is a legitimate question, but there is little time to ponder this subject during the 138 minutes, because, especially if you’re impressed by Shibasaki’s emotion-packed opening scene, you are likely to get hooked to the story and be fiendishly busy wiping off a continuous flow of tears from your face.

Sakutaro (Takao Osawa) suddenly finds his fiance missing without leaving any clues. In search of her, he heads for their hometown, Shikoku, a place where he experienced his first love with another girl named Aki (Masami Nagasawa).

Wherever he goes in the small yet beautiful town, he cannot help but to notice the presence of his former love, and the movie unfolds a tragic tale that happened 17 years ago.

At age 16, young Sakutaro (Mirai Moriyama) falls for his classmate Aki, a popular and talented girl. Their affection, however, faced a bumpy road as Aki’s parents, who didn’t want their daughter to talk to boys, blocked the use of her telephone. Yearning for communication, she devises a plan to exchange recorded cassette messages.

They record what they like in everyday life or what they feel toward each other and share their innermost thoughts, weaving a fresh type of romance via a cassette tape recorder (which was cutting-edge technology in this 1980s setting).

Unfortunately, Aki comes down with leukemia. As her life is racing to an end, she desperately wants to pull off her dream — visiting Ululu, Australia, the sacred ground of Aboriginals or what she calls “the center of the world.” Sakutaro attempts to make her dream come true by going to a photo studio to have their passport pictures taken, and, for fun, pose for a photo of their imaginary wedding. On a stormy night he secretly spirits Aki away from the hospital to the airport, but all the flights are canceled due to a fierce typhoon.

Back to the present, Sakutaro is wandering around the town, tracing the memories scattered from each and every corner. At one magical moment, he stands listening to a piece of piano number played by Aki, and they embrace each other. The man suddenly changes into a boy, and the girl, with her big, sad eyes closed tight, will not let go of his embrace.

In fact, their romance remains unfinished because the last recorded message is yet to be delivered. Aki, right before her death, leaves a message to be delivered to Sakutaro, but it gets missing somehow, and the plot twist toward the end of the film explains why.

In all fairness, the story itself is far from revolutionary, but the way it is presented on the silver screen turns up the emotional pitch gradually to a point of perfect empathy with the ill-fated lovers — an evolutionary process that can be compared with the formula of “Love Letter,” a 1995 film directed by Shunji Iwai, which still has a huge following in Korea and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Korean translation of the original novel has sold some 200,000 copies, jumping to the best-seller list overnight. After all, the irreversible loss of love appeals universally. You don`t have to explain why you are crying, as long as tears come from the center of your world.