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Original Title:
Nae sarang nae gyeolae

South Korea 2009

Drama, Romance

Park Jin-pyo

Kim Myeong-min
Ha Ji-won
Nam Neung-mi
Choi Jong-ryol
Lim Ha-ryong
Choi Yo-han
Seo Hyo-rim
Lim Jong-yun
Son Ga-in
Shin Chi-yeong

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Closer to Heaven

Story: Baek Jong-woo (Kim Myeong-min) suffers from the Lou-Gehrig-Syndrom and has to sit in a wheel chair most of the time. He knows that he has only 2 years to live but decides to invite the undertaker Lee Ji-soo (Ha Ji-won) to dinner. The two have known each other since their childhood and now Jong-woo finally musters up the courage to confess his love to her. The two of them become a couple, even though Ji-soo knows about his fatal disease. Together they battle against the disease and aren't dicouraged by the fact that they have to spend more and more time at the hospital. As there are no chances of recovery, they also decide to look for alternative methods of treatment and don't lose their hope to defeat the disease, after all. One day, Jong-woo's condition gets even worse and he is confined to his hospital bed. The increasing muscular athropy hardly makes it possible for him to peform any autonomous activities and he starts to suffer from a deep depression. Even though Ji-soo never leaves his side, he becomes more and more moody and puts their relationship in danger, and this despite the fact that now he probably needs her more than ever...

Review: "Closer to Heaven" was an impressive success at the Korean box office and this at a time when things don't look so bright for Korean movies at all. However, if you look at it rationally, this success isn't justified. Despite the wonderful actors and the respectable realization, Park Jin-pyo's romantic drama doesn't manage to stand out from all the other tearjerkers or disease-of-the-week flicks. Even though, this time the disease and all its consequences are portrayed incredibly realistic. However, Park already managed to deliver better movies with "You are my Sunshine", for instance. It simply doesn't cut it anymore to throw the protagonist into physical and psychological pain and in that way win over the viewer. A well cast acting-couple, which we most certainly do have in this picture, may manage to win over the audience's sympathy, but whether an inevitable drama plus the tears to go with, is enough to have a lasting emotional effect on the viewer, is a different story all toghether.

But still, some rules of the typical tearjerker are broken. In that way that "Closer to Heaven" even shows us what sort of disease we are dealing with. We learn something about the symptoms and the psychological effects, little details that normally are dropped in favor of the love story. Of course, in this case, the priority is still the couple's relationship and how they have to deal with death. Nevertheless, it creates another dimension for the drama if we get to see how horrible it must be to be locked in a body, which doesn't seem to follow your will anymore while the mind still works perfectly. In fact, the moments in which Ji-soo, for instance, tries to empathize with Jong-woo, are the ones that give the movie its special something. The reason why these moments can't stay with you, though, is simply the fact that in the end all this just serves to feed another one of these manipulative tearful finales.

Thankfully, "Closer to Heaven" is not one of these works that start off especially cheerful just to slowly drown you in tears while it progresses. The tone is generally mixed, even though undoubtedly there is a thematically driven focus on the drama towards the end. Moreover the movie is well structured, especially how the two lovers got to know each other is cut down rather nicely without conveying the impression that something is missing. Some of the integrated side-stories of the other patients in the hospital room also show some additional aspects of the disease and help to bring more color to drama. The supporting characters are interesting and know how to use the little time they have on screen. From a viewer's point, that's a place where you would have liked to dwell some more since you get the feeling that you might discover some more interesting things. Nonetheless, the director has to keep his focus on the two main characters, even if unfortunately that means that he ends up in the all too familiar terrain of a typical drama.

Yet the most striking thing in "Closer to Heaven" is most certainly its two main characters, especially Kim Myeong-min ("Return", "Beethoven Virus") when it comes to physical commitment: he lost over 20 kilos during the movie! He manages to successfully carry the emotional scenes, too, and as opposed to his other roles, he seems more human and affectionate, but still, on an emotional level, Ha Ji-won ("Love so Divine", "Duelist", "Hwang Jin-yi") turns out to be the leading force. Yet again she shows her incredible charisma and manages to play complex emotions with ease. One more time she proves that she is one of Korea's best actresses, who in my opinion, despite the fact that she already received some few awards, is still underestimated.
Another positive point is that the two actors have very good chemistry, so all there is left to say, is that the actors actually often manage to raise the movie's quality bar quite a bit.

Unfortunately, this nice acting doesn't turn out to be enough to make up for all of the movie's weaknesses and that's where the ending comes into play. It just turns out to be rather unspectacular. It lacks some sort of message and an enduring feeling for the viewer. The ending hits us too suddenly and it's just disappointing. This way, "Closer to Heaven" manages to gamble away every sort of goodwill you had toward it in just some few minutes. The worst part is, that the finale comes along with tears en masse, while you aren't really moved at all, because the drama sinks down to a run-of-the-mill tearjerker. A pity, because that way "Closer to Heaven" turns out to be just another one of these insignificant dramas and it can only be recommended based on the outstanding acting job and because of the fact that the bitter circumstances of a fatal disease are described more thoroughly than usual.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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