Korean and Cantonese language. South Korea, 2001. Not Rated. 115 minutes.

Cast: Choi Min-sik, Cecilia Cheung, Son Byeong-ho, Kong Hyeong-jin
Writers: Song Hye-sung, Ahn Sang-hoon and Kim Hae-gon, based on the novella Love Letter, by Jiro Asada
Music: Lee Jae-jin
Cinematographer: Kim Young-chul
Producer: Ahn Sang-hoon
Director: Song Hye-sung


Grade: B Review by Jeff Vorndam

Note: There are minor spoilers in this review.

The best melodramas are among the most emotionally affecting films. They are human drama writ large, simple stories of an individual's conflict with society, usually resulting in a doomed romance. In classic Hollywood, the melodrama flourished under the master direction of Douglas Sirk, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, and Max Ophuls. The pictures they directed were often called "women's pictures," partly as a way to describe their intended audience, but also as something of a putdown--these weren't intellectual films, but low tearjerkers. As time passed and critics revisited these films, they discovered that beneath the overblown surface emotions lay great cinematic skill. These films didn't feel cheap and manipulative because the craft that supported the story was subtle and worked on an almost sub-conscious level. Camera movement, like Ophuls's elegant tracking shots, which circled and hovered around subjects, was a visual representation of obsession and longing. Compositions typically entombed characters, who were shot through windows, behind bars, and separated from their desires.

Perhaps the greatest classic melodrama was Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman. It's a story of unrequited love, in which a woman spends a lifetime pining for a concert pianist who doesn't even remember their encounters (one of which left her pregnant). At the end of the film he receives a letter from her, and is shocked to learn that he has been the object of her affection for so many years. Of course, the letter has arrived too late...

The Korean film Failan has much in common with Letter from an Unknown Woman. So much so, that I thought it might be a remake, but, in fact, it is based on a story by Japanese writer Jiro Asada. Failan tells the story of Kang-jae, a has-been gangster facing long-term imprisonment, and Failan, a meek young Chinese immigrant who worships Kang-jae from afar. Kang-jae is a mess. He's just been released from prison. His domain is a video arcade. Cecilia Cheung as FailanHe gets pushed around by an old lady when he goes to collect debts. He pees in the sink. His life goes from bad to worse when he gets mixed up in a murder with his boss, Yong-sik. Because he figures his life is worthless anyway, Kang-jae agrees to think over Yong-sik's proposition to take the blame for both of them. If he accepts, it means ten years in jail. If he doesn't, Yong-sik, who has a penchant for mercilessly beating his employees, will likely have him killed.

The plot of a melodrama often turns on a coincidence. The first one in Failan arrives in the form of a message to Kang-jae that his wife has died. This takes Kang-jae by surprise, since he doesn't remember having a wife. A flashback then begins the story of Failan, Kang-jae's mystery wife.

Several years before, Failan, who is Chinese, needed a husband to avoid deportation and remain in South Korea. At this time, Kang-jae is still an enterprising gangster, and without thinking twice about it, accepts money to have his name on a marriage license. He never sees who he is now married to, but Failan catches a glimpse of him. Kang-jae's partner isn't finished making money off of Failan yet. He tries to sell her into prostitution, but when she starts coughing up blood at the interview (not a good sign), the employer refuses to take her. Eventually, she's consigned to be a laundress, working for a lady out of her home, and taking residence in a small windowless room.

Though the critique may be simplistic, Failan condemns South Korean society and Korean-Chinese relations through the treatment of the Chinese character Failan while she lives in Korea. Throughout the film, Koreans are portrayed as insensitive, pushy and opportunistic. Failan is meek, hard working and faithful. Failan pines for Kang-jae daily. Unbeknownst to him she has a photo of him uncharacteristically smiling, and she believes that some day he will seek her out and "rescue" her. Gazing at the photo, for all she knows he is a kind and generous man, who is working hard to earn money for a life for both of them. Failan manages to keep this fantasy because the movie does something daring for a melodrama--its lovers never meet.

The second big coincidence is the moment when Failan seeks out Kang-jae. Just as she's about to introduce herself to him, a police unit intervenes and arrest Kang-jae, causing the imprisonment from which Kang-jae is released at the start of the film. This scene is related in one of two letters that Failan has posthumously Kang-jae. As Kang-jae reads the letters, his heart softens, and the previously unwanted gangster is confronted with the knowledge that he has been loved from afar. Our emotional response to the film arises from sharing Kang-jae's feeling of unworthiness. What if the kindest act you performed in life was inadvertent, or worse, selfish? The film's poignancy resides in the speculation of the life that might have been had Kang-jae met Failan that day that he lent his name to marriage license. Gradually, Kang-jae realizes he has served a purpose, and feeling undeserving, he takes off for Failan's funeral.

The movie falls short of greatness because, while the story elements are there for a compelling and moving experience, the style is fairly standard and doesn't underline the action. Unlike Letter from an Unknown Woman, Failan is not deliriously lyrical. It's convincing primarily due to the strength of Choi Min-Sik's performance as Kang-jae. Choi believably progresses from a bum to achieve a certain nobility. Failan has taught him the meaning of life through her conduct, and he can enter his house justified.

Failan played at the 45th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 28 and April 29, 2002.

Review © April 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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