Kang-jae is low-level gangster, a hoodlum who receives no respect from the gang that he runs with, he is seen as no more than a washed up and gutless slob . Following his release from a ten day jail sentence – for selling porno videotapes to teenagers – Kang-jae tries to reconcile his friendship with Yong-Sik, the boss of the gang and with whom he has a long history. Yong-Sik’s star has risen just as surely as Kang-jae’s has fallen and when a few drinks together ends in the murder of a rival gang member, Yong-Sik tells Kang-jae that he should take the fall. When the police knock on his door Kang-jae fears the worst, but instead of arresting him they tell him that his spouse has died. A trip to the country ensues in order for Kang-jae to identify the body of his deceased wife: a young Chinese woman called Failan whom he has never met but was paid to marry in order for her to be able to stay in Korea. As he travels out into the country for the identification Kang-jae learns a little about who this young woman was…
Any film which centres on a romantic relationship needs to take in to consideration the needs and wants of an audience who may enjoy the spectacle of seeing a favourite actor and actress together on-screen. In this situation the roles themselves are important but it is all too often the identity of the actors themselves which is the overriding concern for filmmakers – simply check out any number of lazy films which depend on the power of its stars to win over the support of the audience rather than through the characters that they are actually playing for evidence of this. Alternatively, if the actors are unlikely to be recognised by the viewer – or if the filmmakers intend to produce more than just bums on seats – then the characters and the performances representing them come to the fore. To state the obvious: a well written and executed film can gain create an emotional attachment between the characters on-screen and the viewer and the joy is usually, once again, in seeing the on-screen couple actually become a couple. In both of these instances there’s one additional and very important element which is difficult to script and very difficult to fake – the ability for the two leads (those involved in the on-screen relationship) to spark off of each other. It’s that undefinable quality, something that either seems to work or it doesn’t, we can’t always put our fingers on the reason why but we recognise this when we see it.
Failan is a drama with a romantic relationship at the centre of it. With well established actors taking the lead roles: Choi Min-sik – a popular actor across Asia by 2001 after appearances in films such as Shiri (Kang Je-kyu, 1999) and Happy End (Jung Ji-woo, 1999) – takes on the lead role of Kang-jae, a slimy hoodlum who is struggling for respect within the circles that he moves. The other half of the couple, Failan – a young, penniless Chinese woman – is played by Cecilia Cheung who was by 2001 a popular Hong Kong actress whose early appearances in films such as The King of Comedy (Lee Lik-Chi, Stephen Chow, 1999) and Fly Me To Polaris (Jingle Ma, 1999) had gained a great deal of attention. In some respects Failan uses this star power to ease us into its bleak drama – Kang-jae is a horrible character and we spend a fair amount of time with him dragging himself around even though we’re unlikely to actually like him, while Failan appears to be a fairly blank page and in danger of representing a flimsy and idealised depiction of innocence. From the outset set its Choi and Cheung who keep us watching, not Kang-jae and Failan. Luckily Failan doesn’t rely on this star power for long. With its sharply observed script by Director Song Hae-sung and co-writers Kim Hae-gon and An Sang-hoon, Failan begins as a gangster drama and then grows on-screen into something completely different, complimented by pitch-perfect and unguarded performances from the two leads and, yes, as characters at the centre of a romantic relationship, it works. All of this would be more than enough to highly recommend Failan, however there is one more trick (for want of a better word) up its sleeve. The all important seal-the-deal element of the romantic relationship – the on-screen sparks – are here, and they certainly fly. The emotional link within the central relationship is completely convincing and never hits a wrong note. The most surprising achievement of Failan, however, is that it fulfils all of the requirements of a romance yet the two central characters never even meet. Failan isn’t a story of boy meets girl, this is a story of ‘boy doesn’t meet girl’.
If the above opening statement to this review sounds like either preamble or full-on spoiler then believe me when I say that it’s really not – Failan is one of those films that you can’t really spoil by giving away the plot because the beauty is in viewing the performances, its carefully composed cinematography and in its carefully balanced writing. The sophomore effort from director Song Hae-seong, Failan is an adaptation of a Japanese novel written by Jiro Asada. Showing a delicate hand throughout (which was sadly missing from his tepid remake of A Better Tomorrow (2010)) Song provides only a brief introduction to Failan herself before focusing solely on identifying Kang-jae for an extended period. Although Failan has been criticised for spending too long on this narrative thread, this is an essential requirement before the news of Failan’s death and the subsequent retelling of her story through fragments starts to reflect against everything that we’ve seen prior. Without pandering to the viewer through exposition or over qualifying events that occur, again, restrain is exercised throughout Failan in both its elements of melodrama and in the way it guides the audiences expectations.
Delivered with a gritty feel without the use of documentary-like ‘shaky cam’ (Kim Young-chul’s compositions are often static) there’s a rawness to Failan which ensures the performances drive proceedings rather than vice versa. Choi Min-sik – an actor who is no stranger to looking pretty rough on-screen – is just as slobbish here as he’s ever been, and as with his best performances, his seemingly unguarded presence manages to imply a pathetic vulnerability rather than purely generating our contempt. Kang-jae is by no means a nice character (in fact, he’s a total bastard) yet through portraying a character so apparently openly we can’t but hope for some chance of some kind of redemption for him. Cecilia Cheung – not, to be fair, an actress with the same level of range or experience as Choi Min-sik – delivers what is arguably the performance of her career. Failan is a woman totally alone – without the ability to communicate properly as she doesn’t speak Korean – physically weak and in danger of being taken advantage of those around her. Cheung’s performance manages to convey the vulnerability of her character while still convincingly displaying a sense of sheer determination (something which is missing from any other character on screen) as well as keeping, all things considered, a relatively upbeat outlook on life. If Kang-jae’s outlook on life is that the glass is half empty, then the attitude of Failan is that her cup is half full.
There’s plenty more praise that can be directed towards Failan. The supporting cast are equally as accomplished as Choi Min-sik and and Cecilia Cheung: Son Byung-ho in particular is uncomfortably convincing as the gang boss Yong-Sik – a nasty piece of work who represents the shallow dog-eat-dog world that Kang-jae has allowed himself to be consumed by – and Kong Hyeong-jin is on good form as Kang-jae’s best friend and fellow wrestling fan. Additionally, Failan‘s lack of expressing the melodrama at its core builds until it literally bursts free is to be admired, as is its trust in the audience to interpret events without hand-holding. Ultimately though, Failan manages to be more than a sum of its parts, a film that rewards multiple viewings which provides a genuinely heartbreaking experience by the time the final credits roll.
Directed by Song Hae-sung
Produced by Hwang Woo-hyun, Hwang Jae-woo, Ahn Sang-hoon
Written by Ahn Sang-hoon, Song Hae-sung, Kim Hae-gon
Starring Choi Min-sik, Cecilia Cheung, Son Byung-ho, Kong Hyeong-jin, Kim Ji-young, Min Kyung-jin
Failan Image © Tube Pictures