Philip Yancey calls “grace” our “last best word.” Unlike so many other “noble” words which have developed rather less than noble definitions over time, “grace” still retains a portion of its original definition in its many uses. But even so, it’s often hard to imagine that “grace” still exists in this world. It’s difficult to believe that, deep down, there is good in people worth noticing and thanking when there’s so much evidence to the contrary.
It may be that movies are our last best medium for seeing grace in action, for stirring our memories that “the world ain’t supposed to work like this” (to quote Grand Canyon). Recent movies like Magnolia and Pulp Fiction resonated with grace in spite of their lurid subject matter — or maybe because of it. Sometimes it requires us to see the worst in people before we can see grace’s light. And in Failan, it shines like a searchlight.
We spend the first half hour of the movie getting to know our protagonist (or antagonist, depending on the scene), a smalltime hood named Kang-Jae (Choi Min-sik) who has just been released from jail for selling pornography to a minor. Kang-Jae is about as unlikable a fellow as you can imagine, a low-level gangster who treats his friends like dirt, roughs up old ladies, and harasses complete strangers. But despite his posturing and big talk, Kang-Jae is a complete failure, a joke to his fellow gangsters and a thorn in his boss’ side.
Realizing that he really has nothing to offer life, he agrees to go to jail in place of his boss for a murder. However, on the day he’s supposed to turn himself in, he learns that his wife Failan has just died. Kang-Jae didn’t even know he had a wife, until he remembers the Chinese immigrant he agreed to marry a year ago. The film flashes back, and we see Failan (Cecilia Cheung), a young Chinese girl with no family and no place to go. Unable to get work because her visa will expire soon, she agrees to marry a complete stranger so she can remain in the country.
For Kang-Jae, the act means nothing except some extra spending money. But for Failan, it’s an extraordinary act of kindness that allows her to live in Korea and find work. After narrowly escaping work as a prostitute (due to illness we later find out to be fatal), she finds work washing clothes in a small village by the sea. Slowly, she begins to build a life for herself, never forgetting Kang-Jae’s small act.
Reading a letter in which Failan calls him “the kindest person of all,” Kang-Jae begins to see the importance of what he did. And perhaps more importantly, what Failan saw in him. Up until this point, he’s been nothing but a failure. Only when he sees himself as Failan saw him, does he begin to realize just how much he’s wasted his life. What’s more, he begins to realize just what he might’ve had had he been a better husband, or a husband at all.
It’s an intriguing premise, a love story where the two lovers have no chance of ever meeting. The movie certainly has its melodramatic moments, especially when Kang-Jae reads the letter that Failan wrote to him while she lay dying in the hospital. And there are also the scenes of Failan’s simple life, patiently waiting for her husband to come see her and slowly making a life for herself, which keep the picture rather small and intimate. But it balances such sweet moments with the rough vision of Kang-Jae’s sordid past, with beatings and violence an everyday occurence. Heck, the first half-hour of the movie looked so much like a Takeshi Kitano film that I wondered if I was watching the right DVD.
If this were a Hollywood movie, you know the two would miraculously meet up. There’d be some sort of mix-up at the hospital, or it would be a different girl named Failan, and the two would meet each other for the first time, the soundtrack would swell, and the credits would start rolling over the image of them embracing. But that’s not the kind of movie Failan is. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people are going to be upset by the ending, and by the whole series of events in general. True, it’s tragic, but it remains faithful, both to the movie’s theme, but more importantly, to its world and characters.
When I started watching this movie, I got a thrill. But as I saw Kang-Jae for what he was (kudos go to Choi for breathing new life into the “redeemed gangster” role), I started to get a little hesitant. How could there be any good in this guy, this complete reject? But as the movie progresses, it begins to hit you in small ways. True, shots of Failan pining over Kang-Jae’s photo might get a bit cloying, but the movie is genuinely touching. When we watch Kang-Jae read Failan’s final letter, and see him finally realize the depth of what he did and what he could’ve had, the sense of pain and regret is all too real.
I could find no other movie credits for Hae-Sung Song, and if that’s the case, than this is an impressive debut. I mentioned Takeshi Kitano earlier, and there are slight similarities in style. Both are quite adept at showing the seamy underworld (though this is definitely nowhere near as violent as Kitano’s work), as well as small, beautiful moments. The contrast between Kang-Jae’s underworld and Failan’s simple existence is like night and day. As Kang-Jae learns more about Failan’s life, this difference becomes painfully clear and Song knows how to capture it.
And of course, both Choi and Cheung are great to watch. Both actors could easily have overplayed their roles. Cheung might have the easier of the two roles, because it’s pretty easy to feel sympathy for her character. But even so, her performance makes it easy to understand why Kang-Jae would regret so much (and why Cheung received a “Best Actress” nomination in South Korea’s Grand Bell Film Awards). Choi has the harder task, playing the clichéd role of a gangster realizing the error of his ways, but he does a fine job here.
Kang-Jae becomes more complex as the movie goes on, as Failan’s death begins to change his life. However, he doesn’t shed his skin quickly. He’s still prone to violence, as when he lashes out against his friends who just think he’s doing a good job of acting like the grieving husband. He never completely loses his coarseness, but we still begin to see something working inside of him, changing him, making him realize he has the potential to be better.
Some might say that Failan was incredibly naïve, but that’s the point. She’s a young, innocent woman suddenly thrust into a seamy world of gangsters and hoodlums. This world is personified in Kang-Jae. And yet, from this world, a small act of kindness still emerges. Some might say Kang-Jae’s act means nothing because he didn’t really mean it, but for Failan, it meant the world.
More importantly, it’s this small act that allows Kang-Jae to experience kindness and gratitude for the first time, rather than the threats and violence that make up his life — even if it came from a woman he never really met. In the end, this movie is less about what Kang-Jae did for Failan, and more about what Kang-Jae finds in himself as a result of Failan’s life. He begins to see himself through Failan’s eyes; it’s an encounter with grace in true form, and it changes him forever.