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By Jeremy Knox | July 30, 2004

“Failan” would make a perfect double bill with “Last Life in The Universe” if it weren’t for the fact that watching both movies back to back would probably require extensive therapy after.

The movie is about two people. One is Kang-jae, a Korean gangster with a go nowhere life. To be honest, the word gangster is pushing it a bit. Yes, he’s in a gang, if you consider a dozen hooligan kids bossed around by a psychotic 40-year-old a gang. This is hardly what I’d call organized crime. The other is Kang Failan, a Chinese woman with no family left in China. She thought she might have had an aunt in Korea, but the woman has left for Canada. Since she’ll be thrown out of the country if she doesn’t get married, a crooked employment agency sets up a phony marriage between her and Kang-jae. The two get married and she can stay and work, as payment for his “kindness” Kang-jae gets to sell her to a prostitution ring.

When we’re introduced to Kang-jae, he’s just been released from a ten day stint in prison for selling porn films to minors. Whether it was this specific mistake or something else that drove the gang’s boss,
Yong-shik, into a perpetual rage we don’t know. But it all comes to a head when Yong-shik kills a rival gang member with his bare hands and then desperately offers Kang-jae a deal when the member’s body is found by the police the next day: Take the fall for me, and I’ll give you anything you want.

Kang-jae says he’ll think about it for a few days.

While he’s thinking, he gets a visit from the police. His wife has died.

The look on his face says it all. Who? He barely remembers his paper marriage since it all that happened over a year ago. From then on the story is told in non-linear fashion, much like “21 Grams”. We discover that Kang-jae sent his brother to do all the dirty work and that Failan wasn’t sold to the prostitution ring after all, she coughed up blood right in front of the buyer and kind of killed the sale. Instead, she was sold to a laundry where the lady who ran the place was nice enough to teach the girl a enough Korean to speak it and be able to write letters to her “husband”.

It’s the content of these letters that provides the film’s emotional punch.

Kang-jae reads them on the bus over to the town where Failan lived. He has to fill out some paperwork and take care of the remains. Failan is an opposite to Kang-jae. She’s kind, gentle, sweet natured and doesn’t hate anyone. The letters she wrote crack open Kang-jae’s innermost secret thoughts. He hates his job, he hates his life and the sudden knowledge that he had the kindest person in the world at his fingertips is almost unbearable. As is the knowledge that he might have been able to save her if he’d gotten her to a doctor in time.

Here this man stands at the breaking point of his life. He’s about to go to jail for a decade, in the hope of receiving a reward from a man who probably won’t keep his word. The realization of how lonely he feels is hitting him full force; and worst of all, his cynical hard nature has been exposed to innocence and he’s not sure he can go back to what he was. At least before he didn’t have the terrible awareness that he was swirling down the toilet bowl of his life. Now he’s aware of it all too well.

The movie is a subtle tour de force of subtlety, and both Cecilia Cheung (Failan) and Min-shik Choi (Kang-jae) are incredible in their roles. By the time the end credits rolled even my own cynical eyes were brimmed with tears. Yes, if you look carefully you’ll see that the film is an opera at its core, but it works and that’s what counts.

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