A chronically ill thief and a “poetic fugitive” find themselves on the run from a “philosophical gangster” whose money they unwittingly stole after driving off with his hearse in Im Sang-soo’s playful existential drama, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness (행복의 나라로, Haengbokeui Nararo). In one way or another, all of our heroes are sick or dying, pushed into a moment of introspection which forces them to consider how it is they wanted to live and what for them night constitute a good death while pursued by pettiness and injustice squabbling over the most meaningless but equally impossible to live without thing imaginable, money.
Our narrator, Nam-sik (Park Hae-il), is a youngish man suffering with a chronic illness which has forced him into a life of wandering taking menial jobs at hospitals in order to steal the medicine he needs to treat his condition which otherwise costs more than the average annual salary for a month’s supply. On the day his cover’s about to be blown, he runs into Prisoner 203 (Choi Min-sik) who has been brought in by the local prison only to be told that his brain tumour is now inoperable and in their estimation he has as little as two weeks left to live. Unwilling to die behind bars and longing to see his estranged daughter again, 203 manages to mount an escape attempt with the help of Nam-sik who ends up on the run with him after getting accidentally tasered.
Not only are Nam-sik and 203 each suffering from life-limiting medical conditions, but even the elderly female gang boss, Madame Yoon (Youn Yuh-jung), is also bedridden and apparently at death’s door while in an extreme irony the casino money the guys have accidentally run off with was stored inside an ornate black coffin. Rich man or thug we’re all the same when we die, 203 remarks as he and Nam-sik prepare to bury the coffin before discovering what’s inside, hinting perhaps at the utter pointlessness of the gangsters’ quest to retrieve it. After, all you can’t take it with you and 203 has little need of vast riches now which is another irony seeing as he’d been in prison for embezzlement.
All of those around him constantly describe 203 as a “decent man”, his guard quickly shutting down the outlandish suggestions of a bumbling cop that he may have murdered the owner of an abandoned truck by exclaiming that 203 isn’t the sort of person who would do something like that. In fact, Nam-sik and 203 are responsible fugitives, often giving away large sums of money to those they meet in exchange for the use of a vehicle or some other kind of assistance. 203 doesn’t even want his share of the loot, partly because he rightly assumes it’s only going to bring them trouble, and partly because he no longer has need for it. Nam-sik meanwhile seems to relish the idea of being rich, but quite literally needs money to survive in order buy his medication (as well as potentially help out the impoverished mother who rings him asking for financial assistance). Even Madame Yoon seems to want the money as a kind of survival mechanism, suddenly reviving after hearing her stylish but inept gangster protege daughter (Lee El) report she’s found the missing cash while otherwise explaining to her that she needs to be “tough, persistent, and almost merciless in order to beat the insignificants and become rich”.
But you can’t buy your way out of death with money, even if as the philosophical gangster says everyone has to go some way, don’t take it personally. Caught in existential limbo, the two men generate a kind of absurdist brotherhood, a wandering Vladimir and Estragon, or the Rosencrantz and Guildernstern of Stoppard’s play blinking in and out of existence while caring for each other altruistically for no other reason than the connection they’ve developed in shared mortal anxiety. “It was warm and it made me feel happy” Nam-sik reflects somewhat incongruously on a death that was in its own way good and just amid so much injustice. Swapping the provocation which defines much of his earlier work for cheerful melancholy, Im’s strangely moving existential dramedy suggests that happiness lies in simple human connection and the power of redemption while money only leads in one direction.
Heaven: To the Land of Happiness screens in Chicago on March 13 as part of the 14th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
International trailer (English subtitles)