Kang-Jae is not much of a man. In fact, he’s not much of a human being. He’s boisterous and loud, a tough guy without any toughness in him. His boss abuses him and his fellow gangmembers have no respect for him whatsoever. The first time we meet Kang-Jae (Min-sik Choi) he’s just been released from prison for selling porn tapes to teenagers. We quickly learn that Kang-Jae is a low-level thug in a low-level criminal operation.
How low-level are these guys? In a word, pathetic. The “gang” consists of 6 members and all, except for Kang-Jae and his boss, looks like they’re just barely out of diapers. It’s a bad time for the gang as Kang-Jae quickly finds out when the boss murders a rival gangmember in the parking lot of a nightclub and asks Kang-Jae to take the blame. If that wasn’t bad enough, Kang-Jae gets word that his wife, Failan, has just died. Saying that Failan, the titular character, dies is not much of a spoiler, since we learn this information 30 minutes into the film. Until we learn of her death, not much is seen or heard of Failan. Indeed, the only time we see her in the movie’s First Act is when she first arrives in Korea. It’s a brief scene in black and white.
Unsure about rather to take the blame for the murder or run, Kang-Jae decides to travel to a small town in the countryside where Failan had been living before her death. You see, the marriage between Kang-Jae and Failan was arranged so she could stay in Korea. The deal went through without a hitch and the two never saw or met each other, although Kang-Jae did get a glimpse of her when they were in the same building to sign papers. Kang-Jae and Failan are two ships passing in the night, and neither are aware of the other’s existence until one of them dies.
As Failan, Cecilia Cheung proves to be a surprisingly good actress. After having seen her in Tsui Hark’s “Legend of Zu”, I had considered her an actress to watch, even though that movie failed to show her true talents. With the addition of “Failan” to her resume, Cheung has certainly proven to be a capable thespian with much more to offer than a pretty face. Here, she plays a naÃ¯ve Chinese woman who journeys to a foreign country without any preparations. If that wasn’t enough, Failan is also ill, although she doesn’t know it until much later on.
In Failan, we see the good side of life. Failan is not stupid, just unprepared for the world outside of China. She makes due, gets a job at a laundry, and lives a happy life alone. As Kang-Jae, Min-Sik Choi (“The Quiet Family”) gives a terrific performance as a loser without hope for redemption. Choi embraces his character, playing it subdued despite the character’s penchant for being a loudmouth and born loser. The fact that the best thing to happen to Kang-Jae is the murder of the rival gangmember and his boss’s request that he take the blame says a lot about the man.
The death of Failan, who Kang-Jae has never given a single thought to, brings about a startling change in this loser, something no one is prepared for, much less Kang-Jae. In Failan’s writings, which are filled with her inherent kindness, Kang-Jae begins to re-evaluate his own life. Kang-Jae’s journey from his own town to Failan’s to attend her funeral and burial begins as a need to close a fake marriage, but gradually becomes something more. Even in death, Failan has a magical presence.
“Failan” was directed by Hae-Sung Song (“Calla”), whose rendition of the snow-draped Korean countryside is simply breathtaking. Song must have realized early on that he had a tremendous presence in the striking Cecilia Cheung, because every frame of Cheung’s Failan is hauntingly beautiful. In contrast, every frame of the rugged, dark, and pathetic face of Kang-Jae is similarly pathetic…but almost as beautiful in its showcasing of a waste and a shell of a man. If only Failan and Kang-Jae could have met, things might have been different.
Or would it?
Hae-sung Song (director) / Jiro Asada (novel)
CAST: Min-sik Choi …. Kang-jae
Cecilia Cheung …. Failan