Reviewed by: Gunner

September 22, 2004

Rating: four-point-five

Lee Kang-jae: Choi Min-shik (Shiri, Old Boy)
Kang Failan: Cecilia Cheung (Shaolin Soccer, King of Comedy)

Review (Contains spoilers!)
Have you ever felt that you might have done something in life differently and that by doing that thing, your life might have been changed for the better? Regret is indeed one of the most painful emotions a person can experience and the pain is magnified since nothing can be done about it, unless one can turn back the clock. Sometimes we take the best precautions and yet do things that we come to regret, but the things that cause the most regret are usually those that we do not do. This is the essence of the South Korean-Chinese joint production, Failan. In this movie, the themes of regret and human dignity combine to give a very poignant and emotionally-heavy tale on life.

Failan is essentially a romantic melodrama, though the movie is unique in that the two leads do not ever meet face-to-face and there is no real romance between them in the true sense of the word. Lee Kang-jae (played by South Korean actor Choi Min-shik) is a small-time gangster who is already past his prime. Despite his attempts to project a tough image, we soon learn that his bark is worse than his bite. As his boss Yong-shik says, he is simply ‘too soft’ to be a gangster. Disrespected by those around him, his only chance at redemption is to take the fall for his boss, who has committed a murder that Kang-jae has the misfortune of witnessing. Soon after he agrees to this, he learns that his ‘wife’, a young lady named Kang Failan (played by Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung) has died from an illness. In the course of his trip to the countryside to complete the necessary paperwork for her, he symbolically embarks on a life journey which will change him forever.

As the main protagonist of the movie, Kang-jae’s character is truly unique. There is nothing endearing about him, nor does he possess any redeeming qualities. At his advanced age, he has yet to accomplish anything great or meaningful in life. Even as a gangster, one of the lowest strata of society, he is a failure. The Chinese have a saying that ‘a man prefers death to humiliation’ and yet, what Kang-jae experiences on a daily basis is pure, unadulterated humiliation from those around him. His character is totally devoid of any shred of human dignity and his pathetic attempts to gain whatever respect he can by acting tough and boasting about his seniority in the gang only serve make him more pitiful. Indeed, pity is the only emotion the viewer can feel for him because he is simply too pathetic to even be the subject of hate. He has reached a stage where he simply no longer cares. The world he lives in is one without hope and this is something the director skilfully conveys in the first half of the movie.

Kang-jae’s apartment is small and messy with no windows for light to come in. Even the places he frequents, like the arcade at the beginning of the movie, the video-rental shop he runs for his gang, the shop where he goes to collect money from the old lady, the head office of the gang and the nightclub run by his gang are all dark and gloomy places. In the first half of the movie, Kang-jae is usually surrounded by four walls and this is symbolic of his existence, suffocated by the constraints of his meaningless life. We learn that his only dream is to own a fishing boat and it is to fulfil this dream that he is willing to spend the rest of his adult life in jail taking the fall for his boss.

Salvation comes in the form of Failan, a young lady from Mainland China who comes to South Korea following her mother’s death to live with her aunt. However, she soon learns that her aunt has already immigrated to Canada. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, she is forced to enter into a sham marriage with Kang-jae in order to stay and work in South Korea. Kang-jae agrees to this marriage even though he does not know Failan and has not seen her, simply because he gets paid for it. As a character, Failan is the antithesis of Kang-jae. On the surface, she seems to be usual helpless ‘damsel in distress’, but deep down, she possesses a strong spirit which allows her to eventually find work against the odds as a helper to an old laundress in the countryside. Young and innocent, she is metaphorically free and uncorrupted by the world, something Kang-jae can only yearn to be. Out of her naivety and innocence, she comes to think of Kang-jae as her benefactor and creates an image of him as a good and kind husband. This is something Kang-jae only learns about in one of the letters she has left him following her death and suddenly his eyes are opened up to a whole new world. By framing up the passport-sized photo taken from her marriage documents, Failan has attached a level of importance to Kang-jae that no one else in the world has ever given him. She comes to develop a practical type of love for the Kang-jae she has created in her mind and all her hope is embodied in that one small photo she has of him. That Kang-jae never even thought twice about the marriage or bothered to find out how Failan looked like is in stark contrast to this and only heightens the sense of tragedy.

Reading one of the letters left to him by Failan, Kang-jae learns the true extent of Failan’s gratitude towards him. In the letter, she thanks Kang-jae profusely and says that he is the ‘kindest of all’, simply because he married her. It is a very simple yet very powerful statement for Kang-jae. Suddenly an act that he never even thought twice about is transformed into the greatest singular deed of kindness he has ever done for someone. His life suddenly takes on a new sense of meaning and again the director skilfully conveys this in the second half of the movie. The train he sits on to reach the countryside symbolises the transitional phase of his life he is going through and it is also on the train that he starts to learn more about his dead wife through seeing her document with its attached passport-sized photo and reading one of her letters.

At the countryside, we are treated to a visual spectacle, with the beautiful landscape laid before our eyes. The places Kang-jae goes to are spacious and filled with sunlight. Kang-jae himself noticeably perks up as he indulges in a moment of childlike fun with his friend on a frozen lake. Away from the city, Kang-jae is temporarily free from all his worries and able to enjoy life as he would like it. However, all this is tempered by the knowledge that no matter what joy Kang-jae feels at the moment, it is short-lived since Failan’s death is a fact and Kang-jae will himself eventually have to return to the city and go to jail in place of his boss. This fact is symbolically shown when Kang-jae enters the morgue to see the dead body of his wife. Suddenly he is back in a small gloomy room surrounded by four walls and with Failan’s body lying before him, as if to say that his dream is dead.

The transformation that we see in Kang-jae thus far is truly a touching one and is very well conveyed by excellent acting from Choi Min-Shik. We start to see genuine feelings develop in him for a wife he did not even remember having. In his attempts at her funeral to restore some respect for her by lighting the altar candles and also to redress some of her grievances by beating up the employment agent who forced Failan to work on despite her illness, we finally find something decent and likeable about Kang-jae. His dignity as a human being is slowly restored and through Failan, he is no longer a useless gangster, but a kind and loving husband.

We are also challenged to ask some questions about ourselves. Have we really lived meaningful lives? Have we really appreciated those around us? More importantly, have we ever shown that appreciation to the person in question? These are simple but meaningful questions, and a negative answer to any of those could be a potential source of great regret. The deep regret we see in Kang-jae hopefully is a lesson for us to stop and ponder.

Kang-jae’s deep sense of regret comes to a climax when standing at the pier holding the urn containing Failan’s ashes, he reads her dying letter given to him by the old laundress which Failan never mailed out. It goes:

Dear Mr Kang-jae, I didn’t mail this because I wasn’t sure that you’d receive it. If you see this, then you’ve come to see me. Thank you, but I am dying. Thank you for your kindness though for a short while. I know a lot about you. While I saw your picture not to forget you, I came to like you. And after that, it became even harder for me. Being alone made it so difficult to bear. I’m sorry. You’re always smiling in the picture. Everyone here is kind, but you are the kindest of all, because you married me. I have a favour to ask you. Would you come to see me when I am dead? Would it be all right to die as your wife? Sorry for asking this, but it is the only favour I have to ask of you. I am sorry I have nothing to give you, but I love you more than anyone else in the world. Mr Kang-jae, good bye.

Kang-jae cries in anguish upon reading this letter and it is one of the saddest scenes ever. Again, Choi Min-shik’s excellent acting conveys a sense of deep lost and regret to the viewer. Unrequited love is one of the most powerful loves of all, simply because it requires tremendous faith from one party to keep on loving despite not knowing what the other feels. The fact that Failan took this love with her to the grave shows just how much she thought of Kang-jae and being unable to return that love simply tears Kang-jae apart. Had Failan mailed out the letter, things might have been so different. Kang-jae might have been able to see her before she died and in the process granted both parties a sense of peace and fulfilment. He might also have left before witnessing his boss’ crime and never have agreed to take the rap for him. All this ‘what ifs’ enhance the sense of regret we feel, giving us a feel of the Korean emotion of han. It is suitable that this scene takes place at the pier by the sea, a symbol of Kang-jae’s final redemption since his dream is to own a fishing boat. As the English proverb goes, ‘tis better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all’. In her death, Failan gives Kang-jae a reason to love and just as the marriage was to her the one singular act of kindness she experienced, the favour is returned as it becomes the most meaningful act of his life and his key to redemption. Upon returning to the city, Kang-jae gathers up enough courage to tell Yong-shik that he is refusing to take the rap for him and decides to quit the gang and return to his hometown. Kang-jae is killed by Yong-shik for his decision, but at least Kang-jae dies with his dignity restored rather than living an empty life.

Failan is an emotionally powerful movie that offers some deep lessons. In everything we do, we should consider the consequences so that we do not have cause for regret later in life. We only have so long to live our lives and it is important that we live it in the fullest and most meaningful way. A simple word said or left unsaid, a small action done or left undone; these small things might affect our lives in ways we cannot imagine. Only by consciously maintaining our dignity as human beings can we at the end of the day truly look back with no regrets.

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