I’ve been playing music for years off and on, but I’ve never been particularly great at it. Mostly I play the drums, but even before my multiple wrist surgeries I was no Neil Peart. Now I’m just kind of useless. I look at my drum set, pick up my sticks, and just get sad. I haven’t really played much in years. It’s not even properly set up anymore.
But as I watched The Happy Life, especially in its second half, I felt that old itch to play again. I drummed along on my knee and my seat and whatever else was around me. By the end, I wanted to be in a band.
The Happy Life (Jeulgu woon Insaeng | 즐거운 인생)
Director: Lee Joon-Ik
Release Date: 8/20/2013 (DVD)
Country: South Korea
The first act of The Happy Life is boring. Ki-Young (Jung Jin-Young) is unemployed and bored with life, but after attending the funeral of an old college friend, decides to get the band back together. It’s been twenty years, but he is able get Sung-Wook (Kim Yun-Seok) and Hyuk-Soo (Kim Sang-Ho) on board after a bit of pressuring. Unfortunately, that funeral was for their singer, and they need a fourth member. Luckily for them, their dead friend’s son Hyun-Joon (Jang Keun-Suk) is a freaking rock star and joins the band. Active Volcano is back, baby.
But all of that takes way too long to happen. Things are happening in the first thirty or so minutes, but there’s no real hook there. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either, and it seems like The Happy Life just doesn’t know what it’s trying to be. I picked up an out of tune ukulele that was sitting next to me and just started strumming on it, trying to pass the time, asking myself: Is it comedic? Is it dramatic? Is it supposed to be interesting? There’s a band on the DVD box. Why aren’t they rocking out? This is dumb.
But then things pick up. As soon as the band starts to play together, and they go through their big song, “Explosion,” I was interested. By the time Hyun-Joon added his vocals to the mix, I was hooked, and I stayed that way until the credits rolled. The film found its footing, and I’m so glad that it did.
The thing that makes The Happy Life work so well is that all of the actors are the ones playing their instruments. These aren’t four actors who have been told to fake it; they’re four musicians who also happen to act, and though I haven’t been able to watch the special features and confirm, it definitely seemed like the recordings were live. Even if they weren’t, it felt that way, which is good enough for me. It also helped that they were very enjoying themselves. Especially Kim Sang-Ho on the drums. He was a ton of fun to watch. It was like they were a real band, coming back together for the first time in 20 years and reminding themselves of just how much they loved what they had been doing.
Fortunately, their performances offstage are great too. Even in that boring first act, it’s never the actors that are the problem, it’s all pacing. I correctly and unfortunately guessed that the film’s title would be somewhat ironic, so there was definitely time for the older actors to shine (Jang Keun-Suk’s character doesn’t have a ton of personality, but his smile is gosh darn adorable). Again Kim Sang-Ho is the standout here, in part because his character is the most tragic. The best thing about these big emotional moments, though, is that they play into the music. One particularly poignant song comes after a crushing scene for Hyuk-Soo, and it’s brilliant. Every note becomes meaningful, and
Plus, the music is pretty awesome. Unfortunately, the film’s soundtrack doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but maybe this new release will convince them to do another run. I’d buy it, especially if it featured the various versions of the songs. The song “Explosion” is played five or six times over the course of the film, but every single one is slightly different. Different singers, extra guitar, at one point an entirely different band, and these things keep that one, extremely meaningful song from becoming repetitive and boring. Each time, I listened for the new variations, and that was always awesome to hear. It’s also part of the reason why I felt like it was being done live, because those little changes are what make live music so great.
I will undoubtedly watch The Happy Life again (probably soon), but there’s a pretty good chance I will skip over the first few scenes. If the film were half an hour shorter and condensed the “Getting the band back together stuff” into ten to fifteen minutes, it would have been a much tighter package that allowed for the drama to happen without getting bogged down in it. It all pays off in the end (the final song and everything that surrounds it is amazing), but I wish it hadn’t been so front-loaded. And I’m not really mad at the film so much as the people who might start watching it and stop, thinking it’s something far less awesome than it is. It gets better. It gets so much better. So see it. See it and love it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go put my drum set back together, and then play the hell out of it.
[The Happy Life has been released on Region 1 DVD by 5 Points Pictures. It can be purchased here.]