Jin-ho Hur’s “Christmas in August” is the 1998 forerunner to his masterpiece “One Fine Spring Day”, and just like the other film, “Christmas” explores the human condition and sheds light on the power of love found, lost, and the lives touched in-between.
“Christmas in August” stars Han Suk-kyu (“Shiri”) as Jung-won, a 30-something photographer in a small town who is slowly dying from a terminal disease. The film never bothers to elaborate on the cause or even the name of the disease, and that’s probably because it’s not very important. The disease is a plot device that Hur and writers Oh and Shin uses to explore Jung-won’s life and his budding romance with a young meter maid (or as the movie calls them, traffic cops) name Darim, played by the always affable Eun-ha Shim (“The Uprising”).
“Christmas in August” is a good prelude to “One Fine Spring Day” because both posits on the positive aspects of newfound love and the subsequent lost of said love and everything else in-between. Both movies explore the joys (and sometimes trials and tribulations) of family and generational ties; and always in the background, the onset of old age and life, which like love, comes and goes, and encourages the appreciation of both after they’re gone.
Veteran actor Han Suk-kyu plays the likeable Jung-won, a free-spirited man who doesn’t run from his illness. Throughout the film, Jung-won never once tells the love-struck Darim about his illness, resulting in Darim’s feelings of betrayal once Jung-won’s illness overcomes him and interrupts their daily visits together.
The film is most effective when it touches on the subject of death, as when an elderly woman returns to Jung-won’s studio to take the picture that South Koreans use to memorialize their life after death; the woman returns later in the night, after having been at the studio to take family pictures with her family. She is alone, not at all concern about her inevitable death, but rather pleased that she’s able to give her family a picture of herself, as directed by herself. Her scenes with Jung-won, who knows intimately that he will be taking his own memorial picture soon, is incredibly moving.
Eun-ha Shim, as Darim, provides the inspiration necessary to make Jung-won fall in love again. Besides the age difference, Darim and Jung-won are at two vastly different junctures of their life — his own life is coming to an end and hers is just beginning. The movie does not go the easy route and have the two consummate their relationship. Instead, the script is content to focus on the burgeoning relationship by following the normal, gradual sequence of measured and sometimes awkward events involved with a courtship. The interplay between Darim and Jung-won also ensures that “Christmas in August” doesn’t become a moody melodramatic exercise in gothic morbidity, and instead the two’s interactions bring joy and sunshine into a movie about death and loss.
“Christmas in August” is a great film, filled with memorable scenes and quiet, subtle moments that some may need to see more than once to fully appreciate. “Christmas in August” doesn’t advertise its Impact Scenes, but have no doubt that they are present and they are very powerful indeed.
Jin-ho Hur (director) / Jin-ho Hur, Seung-ook Oh, Dong-hwan Shin (screenplay)
CAST: Suk-kyu Han …. Jung-won
Eun-ha Shim …. Da-rim