After losing both her parents, Failan emmigrates to Korea to seek her only remaining relatives. Once she reaches Korea, she finds out that her relatives have moved to Canada well over a year ago. Desperate to stay and make a living in Korea, Failan is forced to have an arranged marriage through a match-making agency. Kang Jae is an old and outdated gangster who has no respect from his peers. Short on money, Kang Jae decides to take on the arranged marriage. Having nothing more than a picture of Kang Jae, Failan spends her days dreaming and wishing that Kang Jae would come to visit her. Failan often writes to Kang Jae in sorrow about how much she misses and thinks about him, but never has the nerve to give the letters to Kang Jae. Things take a turn when Kang Jae is asked by his boss to take the fall for a murder in exchange for some money. The only hope in his worthless life is the wife he never met.
"Failan" succeeds in what at first might seem impossible. It tells a love story free of any stereotypes and overdone drama, a story that takes place on two different time levels and whose lovers never actually meet!
The story based on a novel by Jiro Asada has already been made into a movie in 1995 by Shunji Iwai with the title "Love Letter". However, the korean version can stand on its own, doesn't need to hide behind it's japanese equivalent and in some respects is even better than Iwai's work.
With a heart-wrenching and bitter-sweet undertone we are told a story about loneliness, yearning and hope. Failan starts off rather simple. We are introduced to the life of Kang-jae, get to know the gangster circle he is a part of and also learn about other aspects of his living conditions.
Everything that can go wrong actually did go wrong in Kang-jae's life. In fact, the movie takes its little time to introduce Kang-jae to us, so that it takes until 37 minutes into the movie that we first even hear about "Failan"! Quite unusual, yet it all works out interestingly well, because then we are thrown into Failan's life by hearing of her death. At this point there are several flashbacks into Failan's and Kang-jae's past. At first, this might be a bit confusing as in the case of Kang-jae we always need a few minutes to realize if we are now part of the past or present, but as time goes by these jumps become more and more apparent.
This is also what makes this movie so special. For a romantic drama the story proves to be quite complex and the narrational style also adds to the fact that it takes some time until we understand everything that's happening on screen. However, director Song Hae-sung approaches the material with such a keen eye for details that it becomes really easy for the viewer to get along with the entangled story. There are also a lot of nice details that help the story to get near to your heart, like the scarf that Failan did get from her husband or a single photo she has of him, which she carefully framed. It's these at first sight insignificant things that doesn't only imbue the romantic drama between the two main characters, but also the pictures themselves with a great inner beauty, despite all the motifs of hatred and grief in this world displayed.
Song Hae-sung captures the events with simple, yet meaningful pictures and seldomly uses any flashy tricks. One of the few art tricks are some scenes that are solely in black and white. Moreover, the director deserves some credit for his well-done and seemless blending of past and present. Accompanied by a fitting score the movie thanks to all the little details creates a very enchanting atmosphere and despite a slow pacing you'll remain under the movie's charming spell till the end, as there are also no unnecessary lengths.
Still, all the credibility that is carefully created with the story and the narration, it wouldn't have worked out, if the actors weren't so remarkably skilled in their profession. It's thanks to them that the love story stands beyond time and space and still manages to remain believable. The only connection between the two lovers are a few letters, photos and a mutual friend. And yet, they get closer and closer to each other, even though one of them is already dead!
First, there is Choi Min-shik who is like the Robert de Niro or Al Pacino of Korea, even though the comparison might be flawed. With "Oldboy" he had his breakthrough, but already before, namely in "Failan" he shows all of his acting talent. Being the pitiable low-life gangster we get to see more and more of his soft side as time goes by. His feelings for his dead wife that get stronger and stronger each day, are impressively portrayed in meaningful scenes like when he has to identify his dead wife, when he is the only one who attends her funeral ceremony or when he gets to read her last letter. Choi is a master of emotions and he really gets to show it.
I was a little bit startled when I saw Cecilia Cheung playing one of the leads in a korean movie. However, it shouldn't have been such a big surprise as "Failan" is actually a korean-chinese Co-production. But how was she to overcome the language barrier? Simple, Cecilia plays an immigrant, who only slowly learns to speak a few broken words korean. Otherwise she just expresses herself with her acting talent.
"She actually has an acting talent?", I hear you asking. You bet she has!
I also only knew her from movies like "Tokyo Raiders" or "Wu Yen". In later movies like "Running on Karma" or "The White Dragon" she also didn't exactly stand out because of her terrific acting. But it seems that this is solely the producers fault, who seem to cast her only for undemanding roles. Cheung's performance in "Failan" really knocked my socks off.
The intensity with which Cheung portrays this shy young woman, her gratefulness for Kang-jae, the little gestures and facial expressions by which she conveys numerous emotions at once are just breathtaking. The hope her character embodies and the words she addresses at her beloved in broken and repetitive korean in her letters are really moving. Hopefully, Cecilia Cheung will get another opportunity to show her skills in profound roles in the future, as she proves that she has what it takes to be a serious actress, and she proves it in an impressive way. For her portrayal of Failan she should have won an award!
"Failan" is an extraordinary and intense romantic drama, which focuses on the life of two persons who don't seem to have a future and yet through their love to each other they manage to transcend time. This is not just a movie about lost opportunities, but also about the longing of two lovers, and hope. Since we almost know from the beginning that Failan is dead, we naturally can't expect a Happy End and still we can get something wonderful out of this heart-wrenching suffer.
A great story and two excellent actors imbue this movie with an enchanting magic and make "Failan" a definite must-see!