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'Happiness' Measures Cost of Love

2007/09/27 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Love is pain, they say, and countless songs and stories croon about it time over time. Melodrama maestro Heo Jin-ho ("One Fine Spring Day", 2001, "April Snow", 2005) does not disappoint in depicting love's fleeting pleasures and lasting sting with poignant tenderness in his fourth romance "Happiness".

Things can't get any worse for Yeong-jae (Hwang Jung-min), a heavy drinking, chain-smoking playboy: His nightclub goes bankrupt, his girlfriend deserts him and he might die from cirrhosis (point of interest: the club scene was shot in Apgujeong NB, which also closed its doors not too long ago).

He packs up everything and retreats to a rehabilitation center in the middle of nowhere, where he meets the most unexpected: true love. Eun-hi (Lim Soo-jung) suffers from fatally weak lungs, but despite her frail appearance she is stouthearted and takes care of the other patients. Yeong-jae and Eun-hi fall madly in love and move into a small house in the countryside. Each moment is filled with peace and Yeong-jae discovers a sweetness and profundity to life he never knew before.

Yet, "for each ecstatic instant we must an anguish pay in keen and quivering ration to the ecstasy", as Emily Dickinson wrote: As Yeong-jae regains his strength, he grows bored with country life and feels suffocated by Eun-hi's devotion. Tempted by his friends and ex-girlfriend to return to the city, he leaves the woman that saved his life.

"Before, I couldn't live without you, but now, you're driving me crazy", he tells her bitterly.

Actor Hwang Jung-min completely casts off his much-loved image as a passionately devoted husband in "You are my Sunshine" (2005) as he trades in his boorish farmer clothes and potbelly for a dangerously sexy, chic urban look complete with a six-pack.

Although the film publicizes Hwang's deterioration into a Bad Guy, his character, though contemptible at times, is far from being completely loathsome like Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Woody Allen's "Match Point" (2005) or Cho Jae-hyun in Kim Ki-duk's "Bad Guy" (2001).

"Happiness" is essentially a love story, but, at large, a realistic sketch of the human condition and a testimony of modern man's dilemma. Weak-willed and lacking self-restraint, Yeong-jae is simply ordinary -- an antihero with completely normal, human flaws. You actually feel sympathetic for the guy who falls prey to the dark seductions of our oversexed, consumption-driven society.

The film is almost biblical in the sense that Eun-hi creates the prefect Garden of Eden for Yeong-jae, who is doomed to escape only to meet his downfall.

Even Su-yeon (Gong Hyo-jin), who leaves her dying boyfriend but later wants him back when he is recovered and with another woman, speaks to the no-strings-attached romance of our generation.

Lim Soo-jung personifies her character with such tenderness that you can never imagine anyone else playing the part. Compared with her previous role as a dying schoolgirl in "" (2003), the baby-faced actress makes a big step toward full-fledged "womanhood", and the snippet of the film's love scene in its preview created quite a stir here.

Eun-hi is made of beauty in all its possible forms, with the tenderness of a guardian angel, devotion of a mother and the fervor of a passionate lover. Her almost too perfect character could have stopped short of being allegorical at best, but she becomes instantly terrestrial thanks to minute details that make all the difference. Any woman would be able relate to discreetly checking out one's face in front of the man she pretends not to fancy.

"Happiness" is a memorable film that strikes both sense and sensibility -- leaving you to ruminate the nature of love while leaving a resonating vibe in your heart.

Coming to theaters Oct.3.

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