For the family. For the company. For the future. There is almost always some excuse for not doing something that we really want to do. We proudly call it "sacrifice" that is necessary for our happiness. After all, our true wishes will be realized some day if we gladly persevere present suffering.
The only embarrassing truth is that such a dream-come-true, suffering-well-endured day never comes for working-class people who are often forced to confront one painful challenge after another.
"The Happy Life"
, directed by Lee Joon-ik
("The King and the Clown
" and "Radio Star
") starts off to a slow start, toying with the idea of the sadness and loneliness that grip middle-aged Korean men beset by a variety of troubles at home and in the workplace.
Worse, Ki-young (Jung Jin-young
) does not have a workplace to complain about. He's laid off from a financial company and has to get by on just 10 bucks a day, a meager allowance from his wife Sun-mi (Kim Ho-jung
). Even his teenage daughter Ju-hee, played by Go Ah-sung
), does not have much respect for his father, who has spent his prime years for the family. Powerless and money-less, Ki-young is shunned like a ghost. Aware of his awkward position in the family, he finds himself going outside when Ju-hee brings her school friends to his house.
Seong-wook (Kim Yun-seok
), a close friend of Ki-young's, is in no better position. He also lost his job recently. He has talented and intelligent kids and an education-obsessed wife to support, so he's working like hell -- a bike courier during the day and a paid driver for hire during the night.
The last member of the trio is Hyeok-su (Kim Sang-ho
), a glib car salesman who works equally hard to foot the bill for the expensive schooling for his children who stay in Canada with his wife.
They went to the same college and -- yes, it's hard to believe -- they used to be a four-member rock band. They even joined the national college song competition as many as three times, only to face humiliating rejection at every attempt.
A turning point comes when long-forgotten band member, Sang-ho, suddenly dies, leaving his only son, Hyeon-jun (Jang Keun-suk
). The three struggling middle-aged men, facing a personal crisis of their own, stumble into something that they have secretly missed for the past decades and yet have not had the courage to put into action -- a rock band.
Director Lee is particularly adept at weaving a web of small plot points that eventually form a bigger picture -- a rock band whose members represent average Korean men in their 40s who have very little to lose, even if they put a tattoo on their arms and put on outlandish outfits that are only encouraged in the upscale Hongdae club district in western Seoul.
The story itself is hardly an eye-opener; the real strength is hidden behind the seemingly straightforward plot. Director Lee does not put too many melodramatic flourishes on the three men and the young boy, but neither does he stay aloof from the heart-shattering incidents that put to a grueling test their friendship and adventurous, rebellious spirit that remains latent until recently.
The name of the band, aptly called "Active Volcano", is a venue where they transform their latent spirit into overflowing energy on the stage. Director Lee's tenacious camera tracks the amateur band's emotional performances up close and from a distance, striking a gentle balance in a way that prods the viewers to get in sync with the trouble-laden yet high-spirited band members.
Many of the key scenes involve the oft-cited negative aspects that snare middle-aged Korean men -- a set of obstacles that resonates more forcefully toward the end, with Hyeok-su considering shutting down his auto sales shop altogether and solving his family crisis.
In "The Happy Life"
, the real cinematic delight comes from the music itself, mostly retro and intermittently modified to the taste of clubbing youth. What is remarkable is that all the music pieces are actually performed by the actors -- no small feat considering that they are not professional musicians.
Although professional musicians may well find fault with every move of the band members from Ki-young's lead guitar to Seong-wook's bass to Heok-su's drum, director Lee does not allow such critical perspectives to step in because he steers the plot along an uninterrupted track full of renewed energy and not-so-latent vigor. Lee also sticks to the core message to the end: Sacrifice no more and do whatever you really want to do, however late it might be.
By Yang Sung-jin