The story in a nutshell is this: Failan is Chinese. Her parents die and she travels to Korea to seek out her last remaining relative, an aunt, who unfortunately left Korea years ago for Canada. (I guess Failan's parents weren't very close to their siblings.) There must be a subtext for why Failan decides to stay in Korea because saying "there's nothing to go back to" hardly justifies accepting a paper marriage to stay in the country taking a job as a launderer to make money to pay off the mob who underwrites the marriage—after failing an audition to be a prostitute by coughing up blood at the interview. Kang-jae is the bottom-feeder gangster wannabe slob who marries her for a paycheck without wanting to see her or know anything about her. Time passes and gangster stuff happens. Kang-jae is about to take a ten-year jail time fall for his boss who promises to buy him a boat when he gets out but Failan dies all by her lonesome in some far off village and Kang-jae must detour his life in order to make funeral arrangements for the wife he forgot he had. This is where things get wonky.
Failan writes a couple "love" letters to Kang-jae thanking him for being kind enough to marry her and presumes that he is therefore a swell guy worthy of her love and devotion, but he doesn't get them until she's dead. Why would she write love letters to this guy she doesn't know? A guy who marries foreign girls for a fee? She must have some idea of what that kind of arrangement is all about. It has nothing to do with her. At the very least she should be grateful Kang-jae leaves her alone and doesn't expect sexual favors in return for his kindness. She tries to see him once at the video store where he works but the meeting is interrupted by the police hauling him away (for selling porn to a minor). It's not even close to an endearing moment. The film maker paints a portrait of this young woman as pure virginal innocence and devotion, which appeals as some male ideal, but nothing more. There is no reason to like this girl for who she is or what she does. We can only admire her, as men, for what she represents. And Cecilia Cheung, as Failan, does some powerful representing. She is angelic.
Min-sik Choi, most famous—to western audiences, at least—for his performance in Oldboy, plays Kang-jae. He is a superb actor with an incredibly impressive and expressive physical presence. He wears loose fitting pants. He's a man's man, confidence personified. But he's a teddy bear too, albeit one who's a very loose cannon perennially toying with the end of his fuse. He's got baby fat everywhere and wild baby hair. His face is a work of art, chiseled and scarred with been-there done-that experience, handsome in a Hell's Angels kind of way. He is an enigma who plays the paradox perfectly. He's able to make us believe he has entered some life altering introspective awareness stage upon reading Failan's letters to him when all he's really experiencing is massive regret for not gettin some the whole time. He doesn't even see a picture of her until she's, and I quote, a "dead bitch" lying on a table. And then he reads the faux flattering poems of loneliness from this Virgin Mary. I'd cry too if I were him. He blew it. He's an unlovable and unlikeable dunce not an everyman who deserves a better lot in life and tragically missed it.
This film is a crock of crud, highly recommended for the performances. It's not a tragic love story, it's a fetish. Keep in mind the first half of the film is sloppy gangster comedy developing the character of Kang-jae. Failan doesn't show up until the second half, and she's already dead. Her story leading up to her death is told in parallel with Kang-jae's awakening sadness (or sad awakening), dealing with her death. It's very effective until the unnecessary, testosterone injected finish.