The excessive violence and foul language in the first 15 minutes of Failan (2001) turned me off so much I wanted to stop watching. Was it a queer faith then that kept me going? Whatever the reason, I’m glad I didn’t bail out.

Transcending the violence is a story of an unusual relationship, created on pretext with no illusions of permanence. Yet its images are indelible. Four years after the watching I still remember certain scenes as though I had just seen them yesterday. But more than anything else, I remember Failan for how it made me feel. This is a different kind of sad. Not cry-your-eyes-out sad but deep-down-in-your-guts sad.

Kang-jae (Choi Min-shik) is a scruffy gangster whose only goal in life is to return to his fishing village with a small boat of his own. In the meantime he gets into all kinds of gang skirmishes and run-ins with the law. He rents out porn to teens, pees in the sink, and is essentially just a hoodlum with neither money nor looks, and seemingly no morals.

Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a Chinese girl who comes to Korea in search of her only kin. With just a bag of clothes and a smattering command of Korean, she looks for her aunt but in vain. The aunt has emigrated to Canada.

An employment agency arranges a paper marriage for her (to Kang-jae) so that she can be legally employed in Korea. Bride and groom do not meet. There is no occasion to see each other; practicality prevails and emotion is supposed to be non-existent in this “transaction.” Or so we think.

Seeing how alone and vulnerable Failan is, the agent tricks her into becoming a prostitute. Our spunky Failan (Cecilia Cheung plays her with commendable sensitivity) saves herself by biting her inner cheek and coughing out the blood. Thinking she has some contagious disease, the agent quickly offloads her on a kind old lady who runs a village laundromat.

There’s much more to the plot, but I will end my summary here so as not to give away major spoilers. This is not a movie you watch and instantly forget. It stays in your mind, leaving you with restless, regretful thoughts.

Failan is my third Choi Min-shik movie, after Happy End and The Quiet Family. (I would later add Oldboy and Crying Fist to the list.) What a consummate actor, the best that Korea has to offer.

But praise aside, I must try and watch a movie where Choi Min-shik plays someone happy. There’s just too much despair in what I’ve seen of his characters so far. Doesn’t leave one feeling hopeful about the world.


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