Park Jin Pyo, Korean director of “Voice of a Murderer” and “You are my Sunshine” returns to the subject of romance in the face of terminal illness with “Closer to Heaven”, a hard hitting depiction of the devastating effects of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Although the premise may suggest simple melodrama and tugs at the heartstrings, Park instead achieves a powerful realism, thanks in no small part to an amazing lead performance from popular actor Kim Myung Min (recently in the television series “Beethoven Virus”), who lost over 40 pounds during filming for his role, winning himself Best Actor at the Blue Dragon and Daejong Film Awards in the process. Female lead Ha Ji Won (“Haeundae”) is similarly remarkable as his loving, much put upon wife, and herself won Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Awards. The film proved equally popular with audiences and critics, sitting atop the domestic box office for an impressive three weeks.
Kim Myung Min stars as Jong Woo, who promptly proposes to old friend and funeral director Ji Soo (Ha Ji Won) after meeting her again at his mother’s funeral. The two don’t exactly seem destined for happiness, with her being prone to heavy drinking and having been married several times before, and with him suffering from the incurable Lou Gehrig’s disease. The couple do manage to enjoy a touch of real happiness, until Jong Woo’s condition worsens and he is hospitalised. As he and Ji Soo prepare themselves for the worst, their love is put to the test through increasingly difficult physical and emotional trials.
There’s no getting away from the fact that “Closer to Heaven” is first and foremost an actors’ film, being wholly dominated by Kim Myung Min and Ha Ji Won. Both are at the very top of their games, really pouring heart and soul into their tragic characters and pushing the material way above disease of the week melodrama and into genuinely humanistic territory. Although Kim Myung Min’s performance, complete with shocking weight loss, is physically convincing and impressive, it is arguably Ha Ji Won who provides the film with its emotional notes and most affecting moments. As the tortured Ji Soo, who has her fair share of problems even before falling for Jong Woo, the film pushes her through an intense and moving gauntlet as she selflessly struggles with her love for him, even when his disease pushes him to take out his understandable anger and frustrations on her. It is rare indeed, especially in the often trite and cheap melodrama genre to see acting of this calibre, and regardless of its other qualities, the film would be worth seeing for Kim Myung Min and Ha Ji Won.
Performances aside. Park Jin Pyo’s direction also plays a significant part in the film’s impact, being restrained and grounded, never milking the situation for any of the sob scenes that might have been expected. The film is measured and believable from the start, with Jong Woo’s condition being dealt with in a pleasingly matter of fact manner rather than as any kind of cheap twist once his marriage with Ji Soo has begun. This extends to the physical side of their relationship, and the film is frank in depicting the difficulties and joys of intimacy and sex between the couple. Their courtship is brief and touching, and Park does a good job of structuring the film and keeping things moving without wallowing too much in the progression of Jong Woo’s illness.
Inevitably, things do get more sentimental towards the end, though in earnest fashion, and the film is genuinely moving without resorting to many artificial emotional crescendos. This having been said, the film does hit a few odd notes during the final third, when Jong Woo’s mind takes him on flights of fantasy, and these do grate somewhat with the film’s otherwise gritty tone.
This is forgivable given the difficult nature of the conclusion reached by the film, and “Closer to Heaven” remains engaging viewing right through to its inevitably sad ending. Well directed and superbly acted, the film is well deserving of its commercial and critical success, and is one of the few illness related melodramas which should be appreciated by those who normally steer well clear of the genre and its usual excesses.
Jin-pyo Park (director) / Jin-pyo Park, Won-sub Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-won Ha … Lee Ji-soo
Myeong-min Kim … Baek Jong-woo
Neung-mi Nam … Joo Ok-yeon
Ha-ryong Lim … Park Geun-sook
Jong-ryol Choi … Joo Ok-yeon’s husband