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Failan
Korean: 파이란
Cecilia Cheung in Failan
Year: 2001
Director: Song Hae-Sung
Producer: Hwang Woo-Hyun, Ahn Sang-Hoon, Hwang Jae-Woo
Writer: Song Hae-Sung, Kim Hae-Gon, Ahn Sang-Hoon, Jiro Asada (novel)
Cast: Choi Min-Shik, Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi, Son Byeong-Ho
The Skinny: After his slightly insipid film Calla, director Song Hae-sung comes back with this tremendously affecting melodrama. Choi Min-shik is absolutely superb, and Cecilia Cheung adds another fine performance to her career. Keep the Kleenex box close.
 
NOTE: SPOILERS AHOY!  
Review
by LunaSea:

Missed opportunities. Sometimes they change your life and you don't even realize it. Ever regretted not doing something that could have been important to you? Ever found out that a girl in high school liked you but never confessed? Those things can be painful to discover, because they make you rethink your choices, and how you could have changed the past if you had acted in a different way. Timing can be your worst enemy and shape your existence, and you can't do a thing about it.

We've seen countless melodramas from South Korea, many which were very good and some which were really bad. For a number of years prior to the current box-office boom, Korean cinema was associated with melodrama. In the last five or six years, some directors (like Hur Jin-Ho) have tried to stray from the formula and offer works that used melodrama as a launchpad for different things, and were successful in the process. Song Hae-Sung's second film Failan (his first was Calla in 1999) might be one of the most creative yet, offering a love story between two people who've never met. And, it succeeds at being more emotionally involving than many dramas featuring lengthy moments of passion and romance between the two main characters.

The brilliance of Failan lies in its restraint from the beginning of the film to the end. However, there's something warming up, waiting in the background. It's an emotional crescendo that hits you when you don't expect it and climaxes at the end (which is close to perfection and pretty much the best final thirty minutes I've seen since Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine) like a nuclear bomb. The fact the film is so bleak, unglamorous and crude for the first hour makes the transition of Choi Min-Shik's character from pathetic third-rate hoodlum to a gentle, caring, desperate man even more striking and touching.

As the film begins we're given a portrayal of Kang-jae as a man that's almost impossible to feel empathy for, let alone sympathy. His gangster life is a failure; all he can do is bully young kids and old broads, pathetically demand respect from his younger gang brothers, and generally treat everybody around him like crap. The only man he is afraid of is Yong-Shik, his boss and a longtime friend. We realize all his bravado and arrogance is a façade for a deeply flawed character, one who has no love for anybody, one who steals pocket change from an old woman, and that's right, one who uses the kitchen sink as a toilet. You were expecting a melodrama and instead you're getting a lurid Jopok (Organized crime) flick about a shameless prick who can't get anything right.

Yong-Shik even tells him that he's not made for this kind of life, he's too weak and doesn't have the guts to compete in this dog-eat-dog world. Seeing his life as a total mess, Kang-Jae confesses that he'd like to buy a ship and go back to probably the only thing that felt safe to him: home. Yong-Shik suddenly spots a rival gang member and decides to make him pay for invading his territory, and ruthlessly kills him in the street by bashing his head against the concrete several times. The sight of all that blood shocks Kang-Jae, and something tells him that what he's experiencing is too much.

As a result of the accident, Kang-Jae is given a choice. He can take the rap for Yong-Shik and accept ten years in prison, or he can simply decline and remain outside. There really is not choice for Kang-Jae; if he declines, he'll be risking his life. On the other hand, submitting to the boss' request will earn him respect from the gang, as well as the boat he desires to sail home in. Reflecting on his life, his decision doesn't seem too difficult. After all, what's ten years to Kang-Jae? He's not really living at this point - only surviving. And taking one for the team would earn him the respect that he's craved from his fellow gang members.

Until that point, the film feels like an extremely lurid version of a Takeshi Kitano film, with extreme realism, no glamour and no embellishment. We see a bleak look at what it means to live in a gang life and not belong to it. And how does Failan fit into all of this?

The moment Kang-Jae receives the news that his wife Kang Failan has died of a fatal disease, nothing comes to his mind. He goes along with what the cops say because it probably wasn't the first time he'd participated in a paper marriage, and provided a young lady the opportunity to work and live in the country in exchange for her body. On the train, his roommate begs him to learn a few vital stats about his "wife," to not look suspicious, but he's not really interested. He wants to go there, look sad, sign a paper and go back home as soon possible. In his mind there isn't Failan, but his important decision, what will happen to him either choice he'll make, be it going home or to jail for ten years.

This is where the film's brilliance starts to form. What the first half represents is an incredibly flawed man who's wasting his life, who can't find his identity and is just going along for the ride. This is a man who isn't capable of love and is only interested in himself. However, underneath that something seems ready to emerge and paint Kang-Jae in a different light. His character gets developed in a way which makes his transformation even more touching, because we share with him the change.

Failan might seem a character that's too perfect. She possesses a kindness that's almost childish, and an extreme innocence and goodness of heart. There doesn't seem to be one bad thing you can say about her. She seems too good to be true, but she represents that which can change a person forever: kindness and love.

Failan is like an angel come from above to save Kang-Jae, and it was the director's decision to make her so sympathetic from the beginning. The fact that her character is not developed as much as Kang-Jae is not a flaw, because we come to understand more about her along with Kang-Jae. His reactions to her almost mirror ours. It's a well-developed crescendo that finally, inevitably peaks when Kang-Jae makes contact with the dead body of someone who never saw him but loved him nonetheless.

Making contact with Failan, and getting to know her (through the people she knew, the letters she wrote to him, her photos) creates something in Kang-Jae. How could someone be so gentle with him, a person nobody respected or took seriously? Failan's acts of kindness show him a path that changes him inside. He reflects on why he took his life for granted for so long, and how he never had the chance to pay back all that sentiment. Finally the decent man under Kang-jae's façade emerges, and he comes to realize his missed opportunity. All he can do from then on is try to live his life the way his wife imagined it. He strives to be a better man, and to think about what's really important to him. And, his decision regarding Yong-Shik and his gang life are affected by these changes as well.

After Failan, I think Choi Min-Shik is quickly becoming my favorite actor. I liked him in The Quiet Family and No. 3, and I loved him in Shiri and Happy End. However, this was just an incredible performance. He conveys the transition Kang-Jae makes in a perfect way. The first Kang-Jae is a pathetic man, a loser and a despicable person, but slowly we come to understand how his feelings are changing, and at the end his emotional display rings true.

His is not the only great performance of the film, because Cecilia Cheung excels as well. Using her spotty Mandarin (I thought I heard some Cantonese, too.) and basic Korean she fits the image of the angelic, adorable Failan perfectly. Her natural beauty, devoid of unnecessary make-up and embellishments, make her even more believable. And, her ability to hide emotions gives depth to her character. This is certainly her finest performance to date.

What is Failan at the end? Thanks to Song Hae-Sung's restrained directing and the fantastic crescendo of emotions, this turns out to be a wonderful work with a strong message. That message might be the most predictable of them all: love can change people. Well, isn't it more difficult to transform unoriginal themes into brilliance? (LunaSea 2002)

 
Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
Premier Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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