Happy End (1999)

Chung Ji-woo’s Happy End is a carefully observed film about love and infidelity.  The world that it portrays is a grim one, where all the characters are knee deep in existential drudgery.  In case you haven’t clued on, the title is meant to be ironic. The film delves into some dark places but the cynicism is never overbearing because the story is told in such assured manner.

To say that Bora (Jeon Do-yeon) and Seo (Choi Min-sik) are having some marital problems would be an understatement. She’s confident, leads a successful career and is the financial support of the family. He’s a timid stay-at-home father and when not looking after his daughter, he is shopping for groceries and reading romance novels. They have swapped roles in a society that still has a very traditional view on gender. To further complicate matters, Bora is also having an affair with Kim (Joo Jin-moo). They work for the same company, but essentially, she’s his boss. When Seo eventually learns of the affair, he’s too removed to do anything. He reacts by not reacting. He’s often shown by himself, reading, watching TV and cleaning. He’s emotionally detached and has learned over time how to be alone. It’s only when his daughter’s life is jeopardized does he come up with a devastating plan to get rid of the adulterous couple. As the plan slowly unravels, it becomes clear that no one involved is going to come out of it unscathed.

There are no wasted scenes in Happy End. The film has a meticulously plotted story in which the actions offer insight into the emotional state of each character. There’s a brief scene in the beginning of the film involving Seo trying to prepare baby formula for his daughter and notices ants crawling inside the container. Instead of throwing it out, he chooses to ignore it by putting the container back into the cupboard and opening a new one. Within this little scene, the filmmaker shows how Seo is incapable of confronting the messiness in his life. It’s a scene that’s revisited later on in the film and shows the consequence of Seo’s inaction.  Chung uses sex interestingly in the film. He intercuts scenes of Seo performing various menial tasks with explicit sex scenes between Bora and Kim.  By cutting back and forth between the frankness of the sex and the banality of domestic life, it’s a jarring but effective way of juxtaposing Bora’s emancipation against Seo’s emasculation.

Praise must be given to the actors for fully inhabiting their characters.  Jeon and Joo give daring performances as lovers on the brink of disaster. The connection that they have with one another is so strong that it makes their eventual unraveling that much more palpable. Then there’s Choi whose performance is the heart of the film. Seo is a reserved character prone to internalizing everything. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character could be terribly boring, but what Sik does is he’s able to reveal little by little the inner life of his character with just a stare or grimace.

Happy End is a well paced film carried by smart directing and superb acting. By the the time the film reaches its end, it manages to be affecting and tragic at the same time.

David Lam is many things. Playwright, film sponge, casual blogger, illustrator, photographer and overall purveyor of excellence. He spent many years in a Buddhist monastery where he mastered the art of the one finger handstand. He and Haruki Murakami are good friends and are often spotted running together. He occasionally writes for the Toronto JFilm Pow-Wow and Exiled Film Reviews.