When Nobuhiro Doi’s Be With You was released in 2004, it followed the even more popular Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World as the second in a wave of “jun-ai” or “pure love” romantic dramas in which the heroes and heroines struggle to move past romantic tragedy. Where Be With You differed from the genre norm was on its focus on a love that was already successful – the couple were older, had married, and even had a son before their happiness was taken from them by a cruel illness. Lee Jang-hoon, adapting the source novel by Takuji Ichikawa, shifts the setting to Korea but more or less follows Doi’s blueprint with a number of notable exceptions.
Rather than the framing sequence which kicks off the original, Lee opens with the beautifully illustrated picture book Soo-a (Son Ye-jin) made for her son shortly before she passed away. In the book a cute mummy penguin lives up above in Cloudland watching her baby through a crack in the clouds. When the rainy season arrives, the mummy penguin will be able to catch the Raindrop Train to come back to Earth, but before the summer ends she’ll have to return else she’ll lose her place among the clouds and won’t be able to watch over her son even from afar.
Little Ji-ho (Kim Ji-hwan) has taken the book to heart and really believes his mother will come back when the first rains fall. His father, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), knows better but hasn’t the heart to tell his son that the book is just a story and that he will never see his mother again. Against the odds, Ji-ho and Woo-jin do indeed find a woman who looks exactly like Soo-a collapsed in an abandoned railway tunnel in the forest but she has no memory of her life as a wife and mother or of the family who’ve been patiently waiting for her return.
In contrast to her counterpart in Doi’s original, Son Ye-jin’s Soo-a is a much less passive presence, less inclined to simply go along with her new circumstances and keen to remind us that the decision to “work or lurk” is entirely her own. Likewise, Lee scales back on Woo-jin’s disability, rendering it far less visible than it had been in Doi’s adaptation. Bar some barbed comments from insensitive relatives at Soo-a’s funeral who question Woo-jin’s ability to raise his son alone, Woo-jin suffers little by the way of stigma regarding his medical condition though he does worry he might have embarrassed his son by pushing himself too hard at a school sports day and making himself ill in the process. Rather than the typical “jun-ai” selfish selflessness which caused the hero to breakup with his one true love out of a noble desire not to be a burden, Woo-jin’s decision is perhaps more out of pride and insecurity than it is out of misplaced consideration.
Nevertheless the timeless innocence of the couple’s early courtship (such as it was) retains its essential sweetness. As Soo-a can’t remember her romantic past, Woo-jin recounts his recollection of it to her in all its painful honesty, and in return later gets to hear her side of events thanks to the diary she left behind for him to read. Having met in high school, the pair entertained crushes on each other they assumed were unrequited, never quite working up the courage to declare themselves and squandering opportunities through nerves and awkwardness. Reliving their original romance the couple fall in love all over again only to be parted by a season’s end.
Yet it is familial love rather than the romantic which eventually takes centre stage as the love of Soo-a and Woo-jin envelops their son in something deeper and richer than your average tragic love story and becomes all the more poignant for it. Realising her time is short, Soo-a sets about teaching her husband and son how to live without her – showing Ji-ho how cook eggs, how to do the washing, how to keep the place tidy etc while giving them a few more happy memories to see them through and reminding them to take care of each other in her absence. Dreamlike and ethereal as Lee effortlessly blends one time period into another in a vast web of memory, Be With You is a heartbreaking drama in which a family must attempt to come to terms with irreparable loss through learning to treasure past happiness and living on in its memory.
Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.
Also screened as the first in a series of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be Memoir of a Murderer on 21st May, Regent Street Cinema.
International trailer (English subtitles)