Heaven: To the Land of Happiness (행복의 나라로, Im Sang-soo, 2021)

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)

What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Yellow Sea (황해, Na Hong-Jin, 2010)

yellow sea korean posterReview of Na Hong-Jin’s The Yellow Sea (황해, Hwang Hae, AKA The Murderer) – revised form of a piece first published by UK Anime Network in March 2012.


Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo) is a taxi driver with a gambling problem. If the gambling wasn’t enough to get him into trouble, he’s also in debt to some gangsters over the money for his wife’s passage to South Korea. His wife was meant to be sending the money she’d make there back to him and their daughter to help pay off the debt, but no one’s heard from her in months. The obvious assumption is that she’s made a new life for herself and doesn’t want to be found, but Gu-Nam can’t quite bring himself to believe it. As a Joseonjok – a Chinese Korean from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Gu-Nam had little chance of living an honest and prosperous life. Disowned by both China and Korea, many Joseonjoks are forced to resort to criminality in order to survive.

Just as it seems things are about to hit a crisis point, Gu-Nam receives an interesting job opportunity. Myung-ga (Kim Yun-Seok), the dog seller at the market, suggests Gu-Nam go to South Korea, kill a prominent businessman, look for his wife and return back to China (with the businessman’s thumb for proof). Assuming all goes well, Gu-nam will receive the pin number for an account with 57,000 Yuan, maybe return with his wife in tow or at least find out once and for all what the situation is between them, and finally get these gangsters off his back.

Still, sneaking into South Korea and committing a murder – it’s a big ask, and first off Gu-Nam rejects the idea out of hand but one conversation with his decidedly tough mother later and Gu-Nam has accepted. However, when he gets to Korea he finds things aren’t as simple as Myung-Ga made out. There seems to be a much bigger game in play than Gu-nam bargained for and it’s not long before he’s running from the police, gangsters, and just about everyone else.

If there’s one thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s running. It’s difficult to think of another film that manages to make a good old fashioned foot chase quite so exciting. The set pieces are astonishing – multi-car pile-ups, police driving into and over each other, an extended chase sequence through a cargo boat – the list goes on, all with Gu-nam running desperately towards the camera. Propelled by pure survival instinct and later an intense need for revenge and an explanation, Gu-nam keeps running no matter what is coming for him.

One of those things is, of course, Myung-ga who’s now got a total mess on his hands that’s threatening to derail all of his current business arrangements (well, except the dog selling – something to fall back on). If there’s another thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s stabbing (and later axing). Luckily for him, it seems Myung-ga is something of an expert at this as we find out in one scene where we see him, badly wounded, enter a room full of angry gangsters – the camera cuts away and we return to find all of the gangsters seemingly dead with very little fuss. He even tries to kill someone with a lamb bone at one point! Myung-ga is certainly not someone one would want to be meeting on a dark night (or ever buy a dog from). He is though, one of the most compelling film villains of recent years.

Speaking of stabbings, The Yellow Sea is a very violent and extremely bloody film. If you’re well versed in Korean crime dramas, you might be aware that South Korea has very tight gun laws, so much so that not even the toughest gangsters carry guns. Consequently what you have here is a lot of people sneaking around trying to get the drop on each other to stick the knife (or occasionally, hatchet) in. Obviously, it’s much quieter than gunfire but also much messier and much more physical. The only guns in the film are those which belong to the police, who are largely depicted as bumbling idiots who can’t tell one end of a gun from the other.

This Bounty Films release (distributed by Eureka in the UK) is the shorter 140 minute ‘Director’s Cut’. There is, however, some controversy about whether it really is a director’s cut or an international version prepared by the film’s co-producers Fox International. For the record, it runs about sixteen minutes shorter than the version seen in Korea. Despite being the shorter version, The Yellow River does still feel a little long at times and really pushes the ideal running time for a thriller of this kind. Nevertheless it does manage to keep the momentum going throughout and even has a streak of morbid humour running right through it.

A sad meditation on the futility of life, particularly for those who find themselves at the bottom of the pile and are forced to scrap like dogs for the little other people have left behind, The Yellow Sea is an exciting addition to the recent wave of Korean crime thrillers. Following on from his impressive debut The Chaser, The Yellow Sea certainly catapults director Na Hong-jin right into the top tier of Korean cinema.


The Yellow Sea is available on DVD and blu-ray from Eureka in the UK and on DVD from 20th Century Fox in the US.