Director – Im Sang-soo – 2021 – South Korea – 101m
A meds thief on the verge of arrest and an escaped convict inadvertently steal money from gangsters – closing gala with a director Q&A as part of a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung at LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which ran in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th
The sexual frankness of director Im’s earlier A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) and The Housemaid (2010) is absent from his latest, a producer-suggested project more lightweight than his usual fare which nevertheless achieves a degree of poignancy. Its template is the German film Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Thomas Jahn, 1997) in which two terminally ill men steal a car so that one of them can visit the sea before he dies, the car unfortunately belonging to a gangster and carrying a quantity of cash in the boot.
Writing his own script around this loose premise, Im makes the man who wants to see the sea a convict, inmate 203 (Choi Min-sik from The Tiger, Park Hoon-jung, 2015; Lucy, Luc Besson, 2014; New World, Park Hoon-jung, 2013; Lady Vengeance, Park Chan Wook, 2005), sent to the hospital for an MRI scan where it’s discovered he has a brain tumour and two weeks to live. The other he reinvents as Nam-sik (Park Hae-il from The Fortress, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2017; The Host, Bong Joon Ho, 2006; Memories Of Murder, Bong Joon Ho, 2003), a man with a potentially fatal medical condition which can only be kept at bay by regularly taking expensive tablets beyond his budget, so he works as a porter in hospitals in order to steal his ongoing supply of the needed meds, changing the hospital where he works frequently so as to avoid getting caught.
Uncuffed by his security detail after his MRI so he can go to the lavatory, inmate 203 shoots the man with his own, single shot until recharged taser, temporarily incapacitating him, to make his escape. (The one-shot tasers are deployed several times in the course of the narrative and prove a highly effective running gag.)
Inmate 203’s orderly is none other than Nam-sik, who is similarly thinking on his feet since his theft from a medical cupboard the previous evening has been caught on camera by the hospital’s new HD security cameras and security are in the process of trying to identify, find and arrest the perpetrator. Realising 203 is similarly trying to evade capture, Nam-sik wheelchaIrs him out to the car park where they steal a motor vehicle to make their getaway.
Meanwhile, in a parallel plot strand, a smartly dressed gangster (Jo Han-chul from Ashfall, Kim Byung-seo, Lee Hae-jun, 2019; Along With The Gods – The Last 49 Days, Kim Yong-hwa, 2018; The Wailing, Na Hong-jin, 2016) accompanied by an eye-turning woman (Lee El) are looking after a hearse containing a coffin. It’s not clear exactly what they’re up to, but it may well be outside the law. They park the car in the hospital car park. That’s the car our two fugitives decide to steal. The plan is for Nam-sik to take 203 to see not only the sea before he dies, but also his estranged, teenage daughter (Lee Jae-in) who works serving at a coffee house. While both fugitives realise the law is after them, they’re unaware initially at least that so, too, are the gangsters.
These bad guys in pursuit are working for ruthless matriarch Lady Yoon (Youn Yuh-jung in fine form), who may not be in such good health herself but doesn’t let that stop her from doing everything in her power to get the missing money back. Thus, our suave gangster finds himself “assisted” by a thug (Yun Je-mun from Beasts Clawing At Straws, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020; Okja, Bong Joon Ho, 2017; Mother, Bong Joon Ho, 2009; The Good, The Bad And The Weird, Kim Jee-woon, 2008; A Dirty Carnival, Ha Yoo, 2006; The Host, Bong Joon Ho, 2006) whose first resort to sort out any problems he encounters is violence. He consistently dismisses anyone who pauses to think things through or attempts to find explanations as to why certain things are happening with cynical injections along the lines of, “oh, great – a gangster philosopher!”
The movie contains a large number of disparate elements which really ought not to work together – cops pursuing fugitives, car and bike chases, medical conditions, debilitating fits, teenage girl angst, father daughter relationship issues, a truck load of melons which overheats and breaks down, relaxed and philosophical musings on death and dying – it’s a great credit to Im’s talents both as writer and director that all these coalesce effectively into a coherent whole. The tone shifts effortlessly between drama, tragedy and farce – far from this undermining the piece, as it might so easily have done, it’s actually its great strength. A strong choice for a closing night film, it deserves to be widely seen.
Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness screened with a director Q&A as part of a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung in LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival which ran from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th.
LKFF 2021 Trailer:
Youn Yuh-jung films currently or recently available…
Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel (free): Insect Woman (Kim Ki-young, 1972)
BFI Player: The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo, 2010)
Curzon Home Cinema: Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)