Although not as well known around the world as the likes of Park Chan Wook or Bong Joon Ho, Korean writer and director team Choi Suk Hwan and Lee Jun Ik have already established themselves as top domestic talent, having won over the critics and smashed box office records with “King and the Clown” and “Radio Days”. For their latest outing “The Happy Life” they again return to the subjects of male anxiety and music, gathering together an outstanding cast of veterans including Kim Yoon Seok (currently a hot property after his award winning turn in “The Chaser”), Jung Jin Young (also in “King And The Clown”) and Kim Sang Ho (recently in “Le Grand Chef”), not to mention the up and coming young star Jang Geun Suk (who also featured in the similarly musical “Do-Re-Mi-Pa-Sol-Ra-Si-Do”). The film further establishes its credentials as a distinctly tuneful affair through appearances from a number of top Korean rock bands such as Trans Fixtion and No Brain.
The plot follows a group of three middle-aged men whose time in the sun seems to have all but passed. Gi Young (Jung Jin Young) is unemployed, relying upon his wife to support the family, Sung Wook (Kim Yoon Seok) works night and day as a delivery man and driver to pay for his sons’ education, while Hyuk Soo (Kim Sang Ho) slaves away as a used car salesman to send money to his wife and children in Canada. After meeting again at the funeral of a close friend and fellow musician, the three decide to reform Active Volcano, their old rock band. Things get off to a slow start, until Hyun Joon (Jang Geun Suk), the son of their dead friend, reluctantly comes onboard on lead vocals, setting the four on a crazy rocking ride of rebirth and self-discovery.
Although “The Happy Life” could easily have simply been played for laughs or nostalgia, with the concept of old guys forming a rock band not exactly being novel, Choi and Lee’s execution, long with the excellent performances of the cast mean that it has far more depth and emotional resonance that might have been expected. Dealing with pride in the face of adversity, lost dreams and the desire of aging men to win respect not only from wives and children, but also from themselves, the film is a deeply humanist piece of cinema that is moving without ever being melodramatic.
The characters are all likeable, easy to feel for and indeed to identify with, and the film has a nicely intergenerational feel, with the presence of Jang Geun Suk ensuring that it never becomes a one-note affair. Indeed, the film taps into something truly universal, namely the desire to make life mean something, and as a result the joy of the characters at their reawakening dreams and youth is genuinely palpable, and it is hard not to get caught up in enthusiasm and excitement. The four leads are all on superb form, and there is a good, believable chemistry between them, essential to the camaraderie of the film. This spirit pervades every aspect of the film, and it remains upbeat throughout, despite covering some pretty depressing ground, with the men dragging each other through some truly tough times. The soundtrack helps, and the inclusion of some great rock numbers gives the proceedings a suitably musical feel.
Although the film is amusing throughout, it is never overtly comical, and Choi and Lee wisely never allow any of the character to become a joke, with their painfully human frailties being treated with honesty and sympathy. The film definitely benefits from a realistic approach rather than playing the subject matter as a simple slice of middle aged fantasy, with the road to rocking being strewn with a variety of everyday problems. It quickly becomes clear that the actions of the three men and their decision to reform the band have consequences not only for themselves but also for their families, emotionally and financially. The film makes it abundantly clear that it is far from easy being father, husband, provider and rocker all rolled into one, and harsh reality frequently intrudes. As a result, the film is convincingly grounded, and is all the better for it, making the characters even more appealing and distracting from the basic familiarity of the fairly standard underdog story.
Certainly, as with “Radio Star”, there is nothing particularly new here in terms of plot, though as was the case then, what makes the difference is the execution, with Choi and Lee showing an incredible talent for bringing their characters to life with warmth and self-belief. “The Happy Life” is amazingly uplifting and life affirming, managing to be both emotional and highly entertaining, taking the viewer along with its aging heroes on their wild rocking ride.
Lee Joon-ik (director) / Choi Seok-hwan (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong Jin-yeong, Kim Yoon-seok, Kim Sang-h, Jang Geun-seok, Kim Ho-jeong, Choo Kwi-jeong, Ko Ah-seong