In 1998, director Hur Jin-Ho made a huge impact in South Korea with his cinematic debut, Christmas in August, inspiring a whole legion of admirers and imitators in the process. Unlike a great many other films that share similar content and themes, Christmas in August never feels forced or contrived. Instead, we are given a far more rewarding cinematic experience than its well-trodden plotline might first suggest.
Early in the narrative, we meet Jung-Won (Han Suk-Kyu), a seemingly happy-go-lucky thirtysomething who lives with his father (Shin Goo) and operates a little photography studio around the corner. Throughout the film, we get a sample of his normal clientele – a young woman unhappy with a headshot she’s taken, a group of neighborhood kids who want to enlarge pictures of the cute girls in class, and an elderly woman who shows up to take a photo to be used at her eventual funeral. Although given little commentary, each of these encounters reflects many of the film’s larger themes in subtle, mostly unobtrusive ways.
Jung-Won’s life seems fairly unremarkable until one fateful day when a young woman named Darim (Shim Eun-Ha) wanders into his studio. As a meter maid in Korea, Darim takes photos of all the parking violations she’s ticketed, and Jung-Won’s shop quickly becomes her go-to source for developing photos. Over time, the two embark on a tentative, somewhat chaste relationship, in which they develop mutually understood but largely unexpressed feelings for one other. However, there is one unspoken issue that will prove critical to their potential future as a happy couple. As we come to find out, Jung-Wong is carrying a terrible burden, one he is reluctant to share with anyone, especially the girl with whom he’s slowly falling in love.
Although one could easily spoil Jung-Won’s secret via a quick Internet search, it’s best for new viewers to watch Christmas in August with little prior knowledge. To watch how the tale unfolds is an experience in itself, especially in the hands of a capable director like Hur Jin-Ho. Unlike many of his peers, the director doesn’t spell out his characters’ motivations through exposition or any other special emphasis, but instead asks you to pay attention to behavior and then come to your own conclusions about what’s happening and why. Facial expressions, body language and what isn’t said - these are things that are equally if not more important than actual spoken dialogue. For that reason, Christmas in August asks the viewer not just to be a passive consumer of visual and aural information, but to be an active “participant” in the unfolding story.
In addition to Hur’s masterful direction, the film boasts pitch-perfect acting, especially from leading man Han Suk-Kyu. At first glance, Jung-Won may come across as a bit one-dimensional, but as the film progresses, the more one sees his jovial exterior as a suit of armor meant to shield both himself and his loved ones from an irreparable pain. A seemingly uncharacteristic outburst of emotion from Jung-Won during a night of drinking as well as a brief shot in which the camera voyeuristically intrudes on Jung-Wong’s privacy reveal an undercurrent of tortured emotion hidden beneath Jung Won’s genial facade.
Leading lady Shim Eun-Ha turns in a solid performance as well. In contrast with the exceedingly artificial-looking actresses we see in Korean cinema today, Shim’s “girl next door” looks help Darim come across as a real character. Her spunky, stubborn demeanor, not to mention her own reticence and reluctance in her budding relationship with Jung-Won, suggest both a past pain and private life to which we aren’t quite given access. Darim is not just a plot device – the pretty love interest who changes the hero’s life for the better, but possesses no inner life of her own. Although again, Hur Jin-Ho does not spell out every last detail about Darim’s emotional state or desires, her behavior in the film’s last act should resonate with anyone who’s loved and lost and not known why.
Masterfully wrought, Christmas in August subsumes the viewer in its narrative, providing us with what feels less like a movie to be watched than a slice of life to be experienced. I especially love how the film eschews overblown theatrics in favor of smaller, but remarkably more affective moments. For instance, two of the most incredibly touching scenes in the entire film are when Jung-Won shows his father how to work the VCR remote (ab act that should resonate with just about anyone) and when he dutifully explains to his sister (Oh Ji-Hye) how to operate his photography equipment. Nothing obviously “dramatic” happens, and yet all the drama is right there on the screen.
Ultimately, this 1998 film presents us with a man who chooses to live his life a certain way. You can agree with him, you can be irritated with him, you can even pity him – there’s enough ambiguity to allow you to come to your own ideas about what this film is trying to say. Is it about protecting the feelings of others or protecting oneself? Is it about living life to the fullest or living it in fear? Is it about preserving love or avoiding it? It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition. I’ve seen many, many films that have utilized the same basic plot, but very few are as good as Christmas in August, a poignantly-illustrated tale that – much like its protagonist - hides a deeper complexity beyond its simple, glossy exterior. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)