[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Failan is basically two movies. One is a gangster film and the other is a love story. Aside from a couple of characters and a shared director, the two movies really don’t have anything in common. One has very little impact on the other, and when one is taking place the other is forgotten. That being said, individually they are both very good movies, with interesting takes on their respective genres.
Unfortunately, together they make a film that is less than the sum of its parts.
Director: Song Hae-seong
Country: South Korea
Kang-jae (Choi Min-Sik) is a deadbeat gangster. Nobody respects him, and quite frankly they’re right not to. He’s just a bitter waste of space. But what was simply bad before gets a whole lot worse. After being sent to prison for selling porn to teenagers, he returns to find that his VHS (remember those?) rental store has been transferred over to another gang member. Then he is witness to a murder, one that he is told to take the fall for. He agrees, and it seems like that is where the movie is going to go. But it’s not. Not even close.
As he’s getting ready to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, police arrive to tell Kang-Jae that his wife is dead. Now, up until this point, we never knew he had a wife. The story had nothing to do with his wife. Aside from the opening minutes where Failan (Cecilia Cheung) arrives in Korea, we don’t even see her, and there is no context for her existence at that point. Nonetheless, the rest of the film centers around her and Kang-Jae and their nonexistent relationship.
You see, Kang-Jae and Failan had a green-card marriage. Failan came to Korea from China after her mother died only to find nobody waiting for her there either. So she decided to stay in Korea, but that was something she could only do if she was married. It turns out that she marries Kang-Jae, although it’s not clear how or why he was chosen in particular. Regardless, Kang-Jae never even looked at her, so her death is essentially meaningless to him. She’s an idea more than she is a person. The rest of the film is mostly about Failan’s time in Korea, mixed with present day Kang-Jae learning about her and beginning to regret some of his decisions.
A good pharse to describe Failan would be “Out of sight, out of mind.” For the first half hour, we don’t see Failan so we don’t think about her. Her place at the beginning is irrelevant and she is forgotten as soon as she leaves the screen. The fact that she had absolutely no impact on Kang-Jae’s life until her death doesn’t help things. Then, once Kang-Jae leaves to go deal with her death (which is a full half hour into the film), everything up until then disappears and becomes irrelevant. Aside from the fact that returning will mean Kang-Jae has to go to prison, there’s really nothing that comes from seeing the first half hour. None of the characters come back (outside of a phone call) until the last five or ten minutes, and even then most of them are just kind of irrelevant.
If this were a longer film, that extra half hour could have made more sense. In a different movie, it works fine. It gives a good sense of Kang-Jae’s character, and that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t matter. That’s a full quarter of the film, and what happens in the first half hour could easily have been condensed (or cut out entirely) with little to no impact on the story. Likewise, those last few minutes could have also been removed.
The only things that the beginning and ending of Failan are good for are their displays of violence. Given that Kang-Jae is in a gang, it makes sense that his life is chaotic and violent, and there’s a lot of abuse that goes on within the gang. The gang’s leader frequently beats him and the other gang members, and there are a number of out-and-out brawls in the first 30 minutes.
What makes these fights interesting to watch is the distance that is put between them and the camera. The majority of the fights take place either really far from the camera or through some kind of obstruction (a window, for example) with few or no cuts. It’s the antithesis of many American films, where rapid cuts and closeups dominate the fights, trying to make them seem more intense than they are. They were definitely well choreographed and cool to watch, but I wish they were in a different movie.
Where Failan truly succeeds though is in making the character of Failan tragic. Her story is really sad (which you know because she cries a lot), and as the film progresses, it gets harder and harder to watch her wait for the husband who barely knows she exists. The way she posthumously affects Kang-Jae is even more depressing. I don’t know compatible the two of them would have been if they had ever actually met each other, but I couldn’t help but wish they’d gotten a chance to try.
I will definitely say that the film pulled on my heartstrings a bit, even during the unnecessary ending. More importantly, I didn’t feel like it was because of manipulation. When I was sad, I was sad on my own terms. With a single exception, the movie didn’t throw moments out and say, “Hey! Look how tragic this is! Aren’t you said now?” and the one time it did do that I was too busy groaning to actually be affected by it. Nonetheless, it generally worked, and I liked it. Which is pretty much all I could ask for.[You can catch Failan at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on Monday, July 2nd ay 3:30 (with Choi Min-Sik in attendance!!!)]