Min-ki (Choi Min-sik) is an unemployed banker who spends most of his days reading romance stories in his local bookstore and most evenings splits his time between watching television soap operas and looking after his baby daughter. His wife, Bo-ra (Jeon Do-yeon), runs a successful business and being the bread winner of the family has to work late most nights - or so Min-ki thinks. In reality Bo-ra is having an extremely passionate, adulterous affair with Il-beom (Ju Jin-mo), a work colleague, and is utterly bored with both her husband and her marriage.
Il-beom has been in a relationship with Bo-ra once before prior to her marriage to Min-ki and has been obsessed with her ever since to the extent that even the intense sexual affair they now have isn't enough to satisfy his desires - he clearly won’t be content until he convinces her to leave Min-ki once and for all. Conversely Bo-ra, regardless of her dissatisfaction with her family life, is determined to keep things just as they are, staying married for the sake of her daughter and fulfilling her sexual needs with her lover. Frustrated at her unwillingness to commit to him Il-beom begins to be much more overt in approaching Bo-ra (phoning her home, hanging up if Min-ki answers and even turning up outside her and Min-ki's apartment) which inevitably results in Min-ki's suspicions being aroused and further investigation on his part leads to the realisation that his wife is being unfaithful. He initially seems resigned to putting up with his wife's indiscretions without outwardly acknowledging that he knows what's going on, as he does truly love her and his family life, but when a severe lapse in judgment by Bo-ra puts their daughter in hospital he decides on an extreme solution to the whole situation...
The first scene in Happy End has perhaps the strongest sexual content of any South Korean film that this reviewer has seen (resulting in it being given a ‘Category 3’ rating in South Korean cinemas) but far from appearing overly gratuitous it actually seems to breathe passion and yearning. Early on it serves to imply that Bo-ra is wanton, self-serving and driven solely by her sexual appetite but once we see the staid, under sheets sex that she has with Min-ki and the reality of her home life we begin, at least partly, to understand her needs and the resultant choices she makes. Similarly our impression of Min-ki changes as the film progresses, his character moving from appearing useless and unambitious to gradually show a shy, essentially good man and father. Sadly his desperation from his wife's infidelity and his need to protect his child drive him to places that previously would have been unthinkable to him and seal the fates of all involved.
The actions of each of the characters may not be justified but are completely believable, each of them is only human after all, with needs, desires and responsibilities all vying for attention. However, though those choices are all made in an attempt to facilitate the happy end alluded to in the film’s title they actually cause the destruction of any hope of happiness and just replace one cause of despair with another.
Cast & Crew:
Films about love triangles, infidelity and betrayal have almost been done to death in recent years, in virtually every culture that you could think of, but Happy End is able to stand miles above all of the lesser films thanks to Jeong Ji-woo’s direction. He has created a work which oozes emotions - from passion to abhorrence to despair - out of the screen at every turn mirroring the turmoil within the characters. The lighting used also subtly but effectively changes as the story unfolds - for Bo-ra her passionate scenes with Il-beom are saturated with warm colours which contrast with the blander palette seen in her home life and for Min-ki the bright scenes, before he realises his wife’s betrayal, darken significantly as his persona does.
Jeong Ji-woo’s bravery in making the film as explicit and brutal as it is should also be applauded as it is only by using this kind of depth that belief in the passion being portrayed can be established.
Of course a great story can only be truly effective if the cast is up to the task and the performances seen here are so good that they’ll stay with you long after the credits role. Both Jeon Do-yeon and Choi Min-sik have gone on in the years subsequent to this film to become two of the greatest character actors around (take a look at Choi Min-sik in Oldboy and Jeon Do-yeon in Secret Sunshine) but their talent is fully on show in Happy End, which was released before either was well known. Choi Min-sik gives a wonderfully understated performance of a man driven to distraction and his gradual disintegration is both a joy and a heartache to behold. Jeon Do-yeon simply owns the screen in every scene she’s in and, as always, conveys the conflicting aspects of her character perfectly. She is, quite possibly, the greatest actress of her generation.
I’ve already mentioned bravery with regard to the explicitness of the sexual scenes in Happy End but no commentary on the matter would be complete without relating that bravery to Jeon Do-yeon and Ju Jin-mo. Watch the film and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
Happy End is an uncompromising look at the human heart and how its desires, if unchecked, can rule the head with cataclysmic results. A cautionary tale which is both explicit and unmissable.
The DVD used for this review is the Hong Kong release which has a anamorphic transfer presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The subtitles are generally pretty good and although there are a few spelling mistakes, extraneous capitals and full stops this in no way spoils the understanding or enjoyment of this extraordinary film.
Extras include Star Files, Cast Interviews, Audio Commentary and original theatrical trailer.
Actors: Jeon Do-yeon, Choi Min-sik, Ju Jin-mo
Directors: Jeong Ji-woo (who also wrote the screenplay)
Format: DVD, NTSC, Widescreen,
Subtitles: English, Chinese (traditional), Chinese (simplified)
Rating: Category 3 (18)
Studio: CJ Entertainment
Distributor: Universe Laser & Video Ltd.