“Maundy Thursday” is the latest outing for Song Hae Sung, a director known for affecting dramas such as “Rikidozan” and the excellent “Failan”. Based upon a famous novel by Korean writer Kong Ji Young, “Maundy Thursday” (aka “Our Happy Time”) sees the director taking on potentially his most emotionally complicated story yet, that of two suicidal and deeply damaged people who slowly find in each other reasons to live, with the tragic twist being that one of them just happens to be a prisoner on death row. As doomed romances go, this one at least offers a twist on the usual terminal illness scenario, and allows Song to delve beyond the sentimental surface and into issues of the morality of capital punishment, forgiveness, and most importantly, acceptance.
The film follows university professor Yu Jung (Lee Na Young, also in “Please Teach Me English”), who after attempting to kill herself for the third time is persuaded by her nun aunt to accompany her to visit a death row prisoner, presumably to get some kind of perspective on life. The convicted man in question is Yun Su (Kang Dong Won, recently in Lee Myung Se’s “Duelist”), who has been sentenced to death for his role in a particularly brutal crime and who is seemingly counting the seconds until his execution. Gradually, the two begin to open up to each other, and find in the face of death the kind of intimacy and understanding which has been missing from their lives.
Obviously a film like “Maundy Thursday” sinks or swims on the strength of its characters, and so it’s fortunate that the two protagonists are both interesting and believable, with enough depth to bring their unconventional relationship to life. What is particularly pleasing is the way that Song never takes the easy route in attempting to win viewer sympathy for the two, and indeed it takes some time to warm up to both of them, with Yun Su initially coming across as a vicious, inscrutable thug and Yu Jung a selfish, hysterical flake. As the film progresses, the viewer learns about them as they learn about each other, and as their genuinely tragic pasts come to light and the emotional walls come crumbling down, it’s hard not to get caught up in their plight. Their relationship is all the more believable for the hesitant way in which it develops, largely since Song avoids throwing in too many emotional cheap shots.
Interestingly, there is not much in the way of actual romance, and the film is arguably more concerned with the way that the two come to love themselves and life again rather than each other. Which is probably just as well, given the inherent impossibility of a happy ending. As such, the film has a deeply spiritual side, which in this case is made explicit through the use of Christianity, which plays a large part not only in the plot, but also the themes. Thankfully, Song never allows things to become too preachy, and mainly sticks to religion as a means of embodying an ideal of forgiveness and acceptance. During the inevitably gloomy final act, this adds a surprisingly tender touch to the proceedings, and if not a sense of hope, then at least a feeling that some good has come from all the tears and regrets.
With its believably human characters and theme of forgiveness, it’s no surprise that “Maundy Thursday” is a film which makes a moving statement about the use of the death penalty. This is done in a fairly subtle manner, with Song never forcing the message down the viewer’s throat. Similarly, the film never gets caught up in legal details or the kind of forced tension of last minute appeals, and wisely sticks to the human aspects of the case, leaving the viewer to make up their mind whether or not the act is justifiable. This certainly adds a layer of depth to the film, and elevates it from being a mere melodrama into something far more substantial.
This having been said, “Maundy Thursday” is obviously first and foremost a tearjerker, and on this score it is certainly effective, providing enough drama and tragedy to touch the heart of even the most jaded viewer. However, at the same time the film’s intellectual weight and psychological complexity should also make it enjoyable for those who normally wouldn’t chose to watch this kind of film in the first place.
Hae-sung Song (director) / Ji-young Gong (novel), Min-seok Jang, Eun-yeong Park (screenplay)
CAST: Hyeong-seong Jang, Yeong-suk Jeong, In-gi Jung, Kwang-rok Oh
Dong-won Kang …. Jung Yun-su
Na-yeong Lee …. Moon Yu-jung