Rich or poor, we’re all the same when we die, according to dejected funeral director Sung-gil (Ahn Sung-ki). A mild rebuke on the heartless corporatism dominating contemporary Korean society, Paper Flower (종이꽃, Jongikkot) looks for beauty even in the depths of despair, but is unafraid to admit that the world has its ugliness too as its twin protagonists practice entirely contrary reactions to the traumatic past. While a single mother on the run fills her life with joy and light, Sung-gil struggles to hold on to his principles while never quite as cynical as the years have conspired to make him seem.
Sung-gil’s problem is that his funeral business has run into trouble now that a conglomerate has entered the marketplace providing a more convenient, modern service which vastly undercuts his own. He’s been stubbornly holding out, but his rent is long overdue and his landlord’s getting antsy, meanwhile he’s also responsible for the care of his paralysed son Ji-hyuk (Kim Hye-seong) whose carers keep quitting because he keeps attempting suicide and generally makes their job as difficult as possible. All things considered, Sung-gil has no option other than to become a franchisee of the enemy conglomerate, Happy Endings.
Across town, single mother Eun-sook (Kim Yoo-jin AKA Eugene) is facing a similar problem in that she’s just been unceremoniously let go from her cleaning job despite being promised a year’s contract because the company decided to outsource to a conglomerate who didn’t want to keep her on. Meanwhile, she’s also being pursued by men in suits handing her court orders which say that she has to go into “rehabilitation” as soon as possible or the order will be forcibly enforced. Overdue on her rent, she hopes to evade them by doing a flit, moving into the vacant apartment opposite Sung-gil’s with her small daughter No-eul. The pair are warned about the bad tempered old man next-door and quickly find out for themselves when he grumpily complains about their moving boxes cluttering the hallway but Sung-gil still needs someone to look after his son, and Eun-sook needs a job, so the obvious solution presents itself.
What Sung-gil couldn’t have expected, however, is the light that Eun-sook brings into his home. We can infer that she’s had a difficult life, the prominent scar along her jaw proving a cause for concern at the job centre, but unlike Sung-gil and his son she remains unrelentingly cheerful, determined to find the tiny moments of joy in the everyday precisely because she’s known what it is to be without them. Her daughter No-eul is much the same, hilariously unfiltered and prone to asking the most inappropriate of questions with childlike innocence, but eventually bonding with the gruff Sung-gil after she pays his bus fare when he comes up short and he teaches her a few lessons about the funeral business.
Sung-gil’s greatest crisis, however, arrives when a local man who’d been a hero to the homeless in operating a restaurant which became a point of refuge offering free noodles to anyone who needed them no questions asked, suddenly dies. Like Eun-sook and Sung-gil, Jang (Jung Chan-woo) also suffered at the hands of an increasingly capitalistic society, dropping dead while being pressed by a greedy landlord. Because Jang had no family and no named next of kin, no one is permitted to claim his body. The authorities send him to Happy Endings, which is where Sung-gil comes in, but the company resent having to deal with a case of death by poverty, instructing him to dispose of the body as quickly as possible. Even if Jang had no legal “family” he had a community who loved him and wanted to say goodbye even if they didn’t have the money to reclaim the body or give him the proper send off. Sung-gil remains conflicted. He believes Jang should be treated with dignity in death and that his friends should have the right to pay their respects, but he’s already in trouble for working with too much care and needs to make sure his contract is extended so he can pay his rent and look after Eun-sook.
Jang’s friends want to have a public funeral in the local square where many of them first met him at his noodle stand, but that presents a problem for the local council who are in the middle of a clean streets campaign and trying to win the right to host Miss World in the hope of boosting the local economy. The authorities are very interested in “dealing” with “the homeless” but not at all with the issue of homelessness which is only exacerbated by their increasingly heartless social policies. Of course, they make a good point, somebody somewhere has to pay, but Sung-gil remains conflicted, originally opting for a kind of compromise but finally pushed towards reconsidering the source of his own trauma which turns out to have a curiously symbolic, national quality that encourages him to think that perhaps it is time to take a stand against this worryingly inhuman obsession with margins and conviction that nothing is worth anything if it can’t be monetised. Moved by Eun-sook’s sunniness which eventually gives new hope to the dejected Ji-hyuk, he begins to find the strength to fight back, masking the darkness with paper flowers in defiance of those who would say that some lives aren’t even worth that.
Paper Flower screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-In on Sept. 10 as the opening night presentation of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (English subtitles)