Failan (2001) • South Korea

Time to drop some tough love on a film that many consider one of the pinnacles of contemporary (Korean) cinema (melodramatique). It's a weeper all right, but it comes from sympathy not empathy. It's mean and manipulative. The misguided love for this film is understandable because the performances of the two lead actors are amazing, utterly fantastic. You could pull any number of scenes completely out of context from this film and just look at them and they might make you cry, but the characters they portray as a whole are not worth an investment in tears.

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.



  1. This is an impressive review of a film you can't recommend. I read on because of your writing.

  2. So basically, i gotta stay away from this one ;)

  3. So, Mr. Movie Man, write us a new review or come and tell us why we are wrong to think, based on your review, that this is a movie we should pass on.

  4. I've been too busy watching. Here's a link to my recent blurbs at Flixster:

    I think when I try to expand the commentary it gets harder to tell if I recommend the movie or not. ;)

  5. Awesome! I see you're watching a hell lot of movie!!! I too have a lot of movies lying with me but have hardly any time to see :(

  6. I too saw it on Netflix streaming and completely agree. There is no real human relationship going on here. The girl is simply stupid and naive and I agree that the Kangjae character would never have had a meaningful relationship with the girl and any sadness he feels is mostly over missing out on getting sex, thinly disguised as guilt over the undeserved devotion and admiration he got from her. The ending was one of the worst I've ever seen for a movie. Simply no reason for it to go that direction. It's just kicking the audience in the nuts for no reason. I highly recommend NOT seeing this movie. It is just very bad melodrama. (Plus the narrative is simply sloppy. I love non-linear storytelling, but when you cut from one thread to another thread, one time period to another, a decent director should provide some kind of visual or other cues, so that you can follow. In this movie, you find yourself 3 minutes into a new thread, trying to determine whether you have just cut back in time or to a different location. It's a distraction. Also, the threads are not given any kind of balanced weight to them. The director simply does not know how to edit decently or tell a story. One section of Kangjae the gangster might drag on and on... Then they spend a minute or so on some importan plot point about Failang. It's just not good storytelling.

    I do agree the individual performances are good. The story is garbage though. The direction is clumsy. Ending is inexcusably mean to the audience.