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“Happiness for Sale” is a Korean comedy which marks the debut of writer/director Jung Ik Hwan, who previously worked on the likes of “In Love and the War” and “Lifting King Kong”. The film features an interesting pair of leads in popular actress Choi Kang Hee (recently in the excellent “Petty Romance”) as a bad tempered and ill-mannered woman forced to head back to her small town home to look after her father’s shop, and actor Bong Tae Gyu (“Two Faces of My Girlfriend”) as an old friend who tries to help her see the error of her ways. Filled with cute kids, gentle laughs and life lessons, the film is a warm-hearted and nostalgic affair, while at the same time trying to offer a sense of genuine character development.
The film opens with Choi Kang Hee as Mi Na, a tax collector working in Seoul having a very bad day indeed, running into trouble at work, finding out that her boyfriend is cheating on her, and crashing her car. After a phone call informs her that her father is in hospital back in her small town childhood home Muju, she very reluctantly agrees to return to help take care of the family stationary shop. Desperate to sell the shop and escape from the site of countless bad memories, she immediately sets about making life miserable for the local children who come calling. However, after old friend Kang Ho (Bong Tae Gyu) appears as a teacher at the nearby school, she starts to re-evaluate her priorities and her relationships with those around her.
“Happiness for Sale” is clearly nothing new or even remotely original, unambitiously aiming for the always popular rose-tinted wistfulness and with a plot whose ending is signposted from the first frame. Thankfully, there’s a little more to it than this, and though nostalgia is very much the order of the day, Jung Ik Hwan makes a real effort to flesh out the character of Mi Na and to put her at the centre of the film. Instead of a simple bad big city, honest and kind-hearted small town theme, the script from early on clearly places all of her problems at her own door, portraying her as an emotionally unstable woman with multiple personal issues and who is prone to bad decisions. While Muju is depicted as the expected quiet and homely seeming environment, Jung wisely mixes some bitterness in with the sweet, featuring bad memories as well as good.
Similarly, though a lot of the film’s focus is on the youngsters who hang around the shop, and while there’s plenty of cutesy behaviour and sappiness, there’s at the same time a pleasing recognition of the cruelty of children and the fact that for many people, school is a tough and far from easy ride. Both Mi Na and Kang Ho are outcast and loner figures, and the film frequently plays upon this to good effect, linking their experiences to a few unfortunate children in the present going through the same trials. This provides a solid spur for her character development, and the film works surprisingly well as a personal journey type tale, the viewer coming to care for Mi Na and what happens to her, even if her eventual catharsis is never in any doubt. Fittingly, the possible romance and feelings between the two leads is never pushed too hard, and it arguably gets more mileage from what isn’t said than any of the usual sudden love declarations, Choi Kang Hee and Bong Tae Gyu both on good form and enjoying an unforced and believable chemistry.
Points are also won for Jung’s laid back though visually appealing direction, and though there’s nothing terribly special or outstanding about it, “Happiness for Sale” is a film which generally gets everything right and succeeds in hitting its modest targets. Inevitably melodramatic, though at the same time very likeable, it should make for pleasant viewing for fans of this kind of film and has enough general charisma to potentially appeal to a wider audience – after all, it’s genuinely hard to imagine anyone disliking a film which has a key subplot revolving around an old fashioned Street Fighter 2 arcade machine.
Ik-Hwan Jeong (director) / Se-yeong Bae (screenplay)
CAST: Tae-gyu Bong