Directed by Song Hae-sung. 2001.

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A contrived plot and larger than life characters threatens to turn Song Hae-sung’s gritty Failan into a Korean version of Love Story but the film is redeemed by its sincerity, the gorgeous cinematography of Kim Yeong Cheol, and towering performances by Choi Min-sik, the abducted businessman in Oldboy, and angelic-looking Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung. Adapted from a novel by Jiro Asada, Failan (Cheung) is a young Chinese immigrant who, after losing both of her parents, comes to Korea only to discover that her one remaining relative has emigrated to Canada. She ends up at an employment agency seeking work but is told that she cannot remain in Korea with just a travel visa. The film then shifts to Inchon where Kang-jae (Choi), a low-level and thoroughly unlikable gangster, has just been released from prison for selling pornographic video tapes to minors.  

Pushed around by his boss Yong-sik ((Son Beyong-ho) and disrespected by fellow gang members, Kang-jae’s life is a mess reflected in his slovenly attire and in the unkempt room he shares with fellow porn dealer Kyung-su (Kong Hyeong-jin). He is tough as nails on the outside but when an old lady gets the better of him in a confrontation over protection money, a softer interior is revealed. He dreams of buying a fishing boat and returning to his hometown but does not have the means to do this. When his boss murders a rival gang member, however, he offers Kang-jae the chance to get the fishing boat by taking the rap for him and going to jail for ten years. Not having much to lose, he reluctantly agrees but his life takes a sudden turn when he hears some sad news.  

The film then moves back to one year ago. In order to remain in Korea, Failan agrees to a paper marriage to Kang-jae who jumps at the chance to make some extra money, even though the two have never met. She is sent to work as a prostitute but is rejected when she begins to cough up blood, an issue that comes up later in the film. Finding herself working as a laundress for an older lady in a lovely rural setting close to the sea, all she has is a picture of her husband smiling but buys two toothbrushes in the hope that he will come to visit her. Appreciative of just being able to stay in the country, she writes to Kang-jae telling him how kind he is and how much she loves him. We learn that Failan had come to Inchon but only was able to catch a glimpse of her husband in his video shop moments before he was arrested.  

As Kang-jae reads Failan’s letters, a shift takes place in how he begins to see himself. Discovering the fact that someone loves him and believes in his kindness, his identification with the young girl and her struggle is the catalyst for him to rethink his life and discover almost a nobility of character in the process. Choi Min-sik is one of the world’s most talented actors and, in Failan, he fully captures the character of the repulsive gangster who begins to discover his humanity and sensitivity. The ending is both sad and hauntingly beautiful as we dream about all the “what-ifs” in life. 


Howard Schumann
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