ang-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
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 naïve
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?