Jung-won is portrait photographer running a small shop in Gunsan. Although he is terminally ill, appearance-wise he appears to be fine and he gives no impression otherwise and tries to avoid discussing the situation with both his friends and family. One afternoon a meter reader by the name of Da-rim arrives at his shop and dramtically insists that he reproduces a photograph for her. An uncomfortable conversation produces an immediate spark between the two of them, although the level of conversation remains polite and limited. When Da-rim arrives back at the shop a couple of days later, Jung-won is pleased to see her and a friendly relationship begins to form between them…
Opening with what initially appears to be the set up for a fairly typical melodrama, Christmas In August begins with a golden autumnal feel, the sounds of a melancholy piano – followed by the chords of a wistful guitar – and a slow, deliberate pace which suggests that we’re in line for a fairly pleasant, potentially, run-of-the-mill drama situated on a well-trodden path. If you can’t stand the thought of yet another melodrama focused on terminal illness then its fortunate that director and writer Hur Jin-ho is far more interested in bypassing the usual onscreen dramatics in favour of focusing on the smaller moments passing between new and old friends and members of a family facing the reality of a seemingly unavoidable loss in the near future. The result is a remarkable, understated drama which has lost none of its charm in the years since its release, and which remains capable of softening the heart of even the toughest, most cynical viewer – this one included.
The forth highest-grossing film at the domestic box-office in 1998, Christmas In August benefits enormously its casting of the two lead roles. Actor Han Seok-kyu was, at this point in his career, in the earlystages of an incredible run at the box-office, having already appeared the year before in The Contact (Jang Yoon-hyeon, South Korea), No.3 (Song Neung-han, South Korea) and Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea) and with Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, South Korea) and Tell Me Something (Jang Yoon-hyeon, South Korea) to appear in the following year and he has since remained an audience favourite. Actress Shim Eun-ha was similarly popular with viewers and although she had at this point made only a couple of films appearances, she was already a favourite of television audiences and despite retiring in 2000 remains a much loved actress today. Both leads have a beautifully low-key and note-perfect delivery here, and there’s a remarkable chemistry between them which cements both of their natural performances. The script is a pure masterclass in understatement, utilising vacuums to create tensions under the surface rather than relying on words. The structure delicately unfurls its characters and themes and at a steady pace and requires performances to make light of a script which is weighted between the lines – something which Han and Shim accomplish, seemingly, with ease. A clear example of this is an early scene in which Da-rim asks Jung-woon questions in an attempt to find out some personal details: he never gives her either a direct or honest answer, yet from these answers she manages to learn more about him than if he had been straightforward and open.
Hur Jin-ho chooses to tackle the subject of the illness in a similar read-between-the-lines manner. The viewer is never made aware of the precise nature of Jung-won’s illness, in fact it’s rendered pretty much irrelevant by focusing elsewhere. On the surface of things Jung-won is a quiet man, uncomplainingly getting on with his life and seeming to forever be working, tidying and cleaning up after himself – suggesting a busy mindset concerned with removing all traces of himself and a refusal to be a burden on anyone around him. Rather than openly prepare for the time when he is no longer around, Jung chooses to suffer in silence and his reticence to discuss his illness is upsetting to his family. His few moments of open frustration appear with his realisation that those around him may be incapable of taking over the jobs that he currently does for them. His solution is to write out lists of instructions, again, tidying and making sure everything is in order. Linked into this is Jung’s work as a photographer – a record keeper who captures images of people which will remain long after the present moment has passed. Despite this sounding a little on the nose, Hur Jin-ho refuses to simplify the situation and scenes feel like layers of a much bigger story. Christmas In August is usually referred to as a romantic melodrama, yet the romance can be found here in the moments and connections rather than in a fully blown physical relationship.
Visually Christmas In August perfectly compliments its subject matter. Despite the fact that much of the principal photography took place in the middle of summer, there’s a golden hue to everything linking the autumnal season and period of life with aged photographs. There’s also much use of framing tools – through windows, doors and camera lenses – underlining attempts to capture fleeting moments. The film is dedicated to cinematographer You Young-gill who sadly died shortly after filming was completed, a fitting tribute to the an artist after three decades of work in the Korean film industry.
Director Hur Jin-ho manages to get everything right with Christmas In August: impressive by any standards but even more so considering this is his feature film directorial début, it feels instead like the work of a more experienced and fully matured filmmaker. It could even be argued that Hur managed to set a standard so high that he and his contemporaries have since struggled to repeat the feat. There’s no criticism of Christmas In August to be found in this review – I genuinely struggled to try to find an element which might be considered weak or misjudged but failed miserably – and the film is only strengthened through repeat viewings. The label might seem a little overused, but here it’s perfectly apt: Christmas In August is nothing short of a modern classic.
8월의 크리스마스 (Christmas In August)
Directed by Hur Jin-ho
Produced by Cha Seung-jae
Written by Oh Seung-uk, Shin Dong-hwan, Hur Jin-ho
Starring Han Seok-kyu, Shim Eun-ha, Shin Goo, Oh Ji-hye, Lee Han-wi
Christmas In August Image © Uno Films Co. Ltd