Movie Review: Failan

November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Failan broke my heart.

This movie was my introduction to Korean cinema, and for that reason alone it will always have a special place in my heart. However, Failan, more than any other movie, exemplifies Korean Cinema for me: viciously unpredictable, achingly sweet, apologetically heartwarming and completely redemptive in the only way a person can be – through complete loss. You don’t see stories told like this very often; Korean movies are very unique and Failan is even more so.

Official descriptions categorize Failan as a love story and that is correct. But what is not correct is that this is not really a love story as it is not romantic in the way we understand romance stories, and it is certainly not sweet in the way sweetness is usually depicted. It is also not a linear story. But it is a very simple story, told in two halves about two completely different people who begin to form an attachment to each other through letters, stories, perceptions and dreams. They both exist, and they know the other exists, but that is the only factual knowledge they have of each other.

Failan, played by the fragile actress Cecelia Cheung, is a sweet and shy Chinese orphan who moves to South Korea by contracting a “paper marriage” with Kang-jae, a South Korean thug, played with exquisite recklessness by Choi Min Sook (he of the Old Boy fame). Money is exchanged, they sign on the dotted line, take the required marriage photograph to show the immigration officer, a bribe is transacted, and that is the end of their business, at least on paper. I don’t think they even looked at each other.

What happens next is what dreams are made of. Kang-jae goes back to life as a worthless and cowardly thug, whose greatest achievement could be going to jail for his boss. Failan finds a menial job as a laundress whose closest family is her sweet landlady. Life goes on. But Failan has a copy of the marriage photograph where Kang-jae is smiling into the camera. And that smile is what transforms her existence from a hopeless daily grind to one of daily happiness because there was a man who, in her mind, cared enough to help her out of a difficult situation. That smile is the crux of the love story that is slowly reciprocated when Kang-jae is informed that his wife has died and he must collect her things. In order to prove his relationship, he tries to memorize some facts from the marriage certificate as well as two letters he received from her thanking him for his help. As he begins to learn of her through her writing, he begins to imagine her as she imagined him from his smile, and he becomes slowly touched by the gentleness of this lonely woman who has nothing but kind words and gratitude for him. Her unflappable faith in his goodness transforms him, and we see not only the love story as it grows, but the transformation of a man who behaved worthless because he believed himself to be worthless, to become a man who begins to believe in his own dignity and the ability to act with honor. His first act that is true to himself, and therefore a right and honorable act, becomes his last.

Yes, Failan broke my heart.

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