Jeong-won (played by Han Suk-kyu) is a photographer living a quiet life far from the bustle of the city. "Christmas in August" mostly just allows Jeong-won to be happy. He loves photography. Jeong-won takes genuine joy in the perfectionist pursuit of preserving the best possible image of a person for all eternity. Jeong-won too strives to live his own life in that way, maintaining an assuredly pleasant demeanor for people to remember him by.
There is a romance thrown in there with Da-rim (played by Shim Eun-ha), one of Jeong-won's regular patrons. But "Christmas in August" is not the kind of love story that makes its point with big flashy dramatic gestures. That would completely undermine the film's greater themes. What do you really see, when you look at a photograph? Do you think about the exact moment the picture was taken? Or do you see the person in it and think about who they are, what they are, what they're doing, and how they're doing?
That quality, that essence, is what's in a truly great photograph. Because of that, the truly great photographs are never the famous ones that we all recognize. They're the ones that mean something deeply personal to us, or to the people we love, because of the memories conjured by whatever timeless expression the subject happened to have when the camera went off, and how that reminds us of who they are.
Film itself works according to the same rules. By that rubric "Christmas in August", like any widely distributed film, is a failure. We don't really know very much about who Jeong-won or Da-rim are as people, after all, outside of the movie's ninety minute odd runtime. But we can see in their characters little snapshots of humility and dignity. These snapshots are reminders of how all people endure life as a series of polite, pleasant encounters, when we can.
This is a very quiet and pleasant idea that has aged quite well over the last twenty years, as the South Korean film industry has since moved on to trying to tackle bigger ideas in stories than just mundane everyday life. Much like a good photograph inadvertently informs us of its era, so too does "Christmas in August" remind us if the elegant simplicity and fashions of South Korean life in the late nineties. It's an era marked in modern South Korean film as a time of crisis. And it was, don't get me wrong, but the moments in "Christmas in August" where Jeong-won and Da-rim just enjoy their time together doing normal stuff? That was real too.
That such life must come to an end may initially seem sad. But really, it's not even a spoiler. We all know of our inevitable doom around some predictable corner. The best any of us can do is try to live like Jeong-won, who does his best to prevent fate from defining him. Even when this predictably forces him to hurt Da-rim, then too, we can only hope to cope like she does. There's rage, forgiveness, and at long last, acceptance.
Review by William Schwartz
Available Online from Asiancrush (FREE) and Amazon, and DVD from YESASIA
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Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Christmas in August""
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