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Happy End

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Posted 7th July 2009 at 10:23 AM by Philleh

Korean cinema has a plethora of unsung masterpieces that deserve a wider release. Films like Friend (Chingu), Oasis and Peppermint Candy seemed to have lingered in distribution purgatory until recently, with few films like Memories of Murder and Save the Green Planet being able to find the audience they rightly deserve. One movie that more than deserves its title as one of Korean new-waves greatest achievements is Happy End.

Itís the rarest of art-house feats, a film that doesnít compromise its vision but never fails to keep its audience interested. Certain art-house fare tends to either bash its audience with a barge poll or offer them a nice goose-feathered pillow to lay their head on. Seeing as it was a highlight of the Cannes film festival back in 2000 and is still yet to see a release in America OR Britain, regardless of Choi Min-Shik (Old boy) headlining, itís omission from DVD is baffling to say the least. And itís not like DVD companies are afraid of controversial material, especially of oriental origin.

Choi Min-Shik plays an out of work accountant, Seo, who spends his days searching for a job, in the afternoon he takes care of his baby girl while his wife (Chun Do-yeon) works in a city school. When she isnít teaching English sheís meeting with her old college sweetie (Ju-jin Mo), boinking his brains out. Totally unaware of his wifeís betrayal he continues to take care of the baby and look for work. One night he receives a strange call on their home phone from her lover, his interest peaks when she seemingly shrugs it off as a work colleague.

Deciding to abandon his search for work he starts to follow his wife on her day-to-day business and spots her and her ex at an eatery in a nearby shopping arcade. Destroyed, he decides to let her have her romance. All he cares about is the welfare of his baby girl. Learning that her husband suspects her adultery, she tries to break it off with her lover, resulting in a drunken call demanding she come and meet him. She agrees and foolishly drugs her baby with crushed sleeping pills added to a bottle of milk, leaving her sleep as she meets up with him and gets shit faced. Seo comes home to the infant half dead, rushing her to the hospital the medics manage to save her.

Realising that enough is enough, he starts spending his free time in a second hand book store, reading crime novels but never purchasing them, (much to the dismay of the owner) setting in motion his happy end.

Starting off with a near pornographic sex scene, itís apparent that director Chung Ji-woo is taking no prisoners with this beast. This was around the same time that the full-on explicit sex opus Lies was banned from being viewed in South Korea, this scene too was risquť enough to have offended many of the moral guardians in Korea. Where the film managed to score points with critics, and the censors, was in its satire and its exploration of modern Korean life. Hitting on aspects of the unemployment of educated professionals and role reversal in the modern society, itís a refreshing watch to see man portrayed as the fairer sex for once. A man scorned however can be just as unrelenting as a woman.

All three leads are excellent in their respected roles, but with a script this good, itís not surprising. Each action taken by a character has been fully thought out by the director/writer and each decision they make, you may not agree with, but youíll understand why theyíve made that choice. The writing is of a rare calibre that more writers should aspire too.

Choi Man-Shik really proved to the film world what he was capable of with this movie, his performance here can not be acclaimed enough. From the abuse he receives from his wife for his unemployment to the realisation of her affair, he gives his soul to this role and you can feel his hatred for the woman he loves once he discovers his neglected daughter: his only source of enjoyment in life.

Ju-jin Mo also gives a career best here as the lover, Il Beoum. His portrayal of a man unable to forget his first and only love is as heartfelt and heartbreaking as Choi Min-Shiks betrayed husband. Chun Do-yeon is also excellent as the modern woman putting her career ahead of all things while juggling with the two men she loves, both for different reasons. Choi is dependable but Ju-jin is extremely caring (and as we see from the different sex scenes, heís the better lover!).

Most of the action is filmed hand-held and it adds a really emergence to the proceedings, itís low on stylistic touches but it doesnít required any fancy crane shots or fancy editing as itís a character piece, driven by their emotions; what they feel is perfectly brought across from the actors so the director, literally, just had to point and shoot. Even the music isnít tweeked to exploit some added emotions from its more intense scenes.

The DVD contains a fair few extras but theyíre all in Korean without subtitles, which is a shame as I would love to hear/read the commentary and the interviews with the cast and crew! As itís only available on region 3 it may be a challenge for some to see, but those with a multi-region player really aught to do them selves a favour and track this beast down. Happy End is the most horrific melodrama to have been produced, even beating films The Isle and to a certain degree Audition, as the finale of this piece doesnít pull any switch-a-roo shit, you can see it coming and can only look away when it hits, much like a tragic road accident.

Damn it all, if someone hasnít released this to English speaking territories soon, I might just sell my girlfriend to people traffickers and release it myself!!
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