By Lee Hyo-won
Director Park Jin-pyo
had moviegoers reaching for the Kleenex in the romantic tearjerker "You are my Sunshine
", in which love prevails over AIDS, and the family drama "Voice of a Murderer
", in which a couple does not give up hope for their kidnapped child.
In his latest feature, "Closer to Heaven
", he aims to mix heartbreaking melodrama with sympathy-provoking family bonds, buttressed by crowd-pleasing insurances ― charismatic screen personality Kim Myung-min
shedding 20 kilograms to portray a dying man and unfailing actress Ha Ji-won
sticking by his side as his devoted, doting wife.
A handkerchief would seem handy for the inevitable tragic ending and compelling mortal theme ― the resilience of hope and stubborn determination, in the name of love, to face a cruel reality.
The story is set in a hospital wing where patients agonize over their inviable state of being, and is designed to wring poignancy. But something goes amiss despite the natural performances by the talented leads and the amusing cameos by star actors such as Sul Gyoung-gu. The two hours crawl by rather painfully, in the wrong sense.
The story opens with a funeral. Jong-wu (Kim) has lost his mother and reunites with a childhood friend, Ji-su (Ha), who is the funeral director, and he proposes to her with a white chrysanthemum, the Korean funeral flower.
Contrary to what one might expect, the film is not about a happy couple dealing with the sudden onset of terminal disease.
Jong-wu is already an emaciated patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) ― the motor neuron condition also known as Lou Gehrig's disease ― from which the patient loses muscle control while still retaining mental and sensory capacities. Ji-su has a history of her own, having twice divorced because her ex-husbands no longer wanted to be touched by hands that embalm the dead.
Yet, the attraction is undeniable between Ji-su, who wears a most winsome smile despite her personal troubles, and tough guy Jong-wu, who boasts about rebelling against life's obstacles and persists in his studies to become a lawyer.
The two fall in love and even consummate the marriage, but on the condition that Ji-su will stay by Jong-wu's side only as long as she wants. But callings of the heart are often at odds with what one wants or needs, and Ji-su refuses to leave him.
The film packs in subplots involving fellow patients and family members: the dejected mother who tolerates verbal abuse from her teenage daughter, a paralyzed figure skating champion (played by Brown Eyed Girls member Son Ga-in
); a grandmother who unwaveringly devotes herself to her unconscious husband; a young man who has given up everything for his coma-struck brother, but is forced to demand euthanasia; and a hopelessly romantic husband who still dresses up his "Sleeping Beauty"
wife on her birthday.
The director knows what he's doing, and even though weepy montages and sentimental songs are very much present, he makes a deliberate effort to keep things "unsentimental". The film progresses with its fair share of comic relief, unexpected twists and memorable supporting characters.
However, it tries to pack in a bit too much and yields a rather anticlimactic finale that doesn't get close enough to the idea of heaven for the viewer to wish desperately, through cascades of tears, for an afterlife reunion of the star-crossed couple.
In theaters Sept. 24. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.