Story: Night-club owner Young-su (Hwang Jeong-min) spends his time with beautiful women and gets drunk every
night. Eventually, his way of living inevitably has to lead to his financial ruin. Moreover, Young-su learns that he
is suffering from cirrhosis. He tells his mother and friends that he is going abroad, but actually goes rural,
because he hopes to get some help in a small community. In this community people like him get help to stop drinking
or smoking by undertaking certain activities in a group and by living according to a healthy nutrition plan.
In this community Young-su meets the girl Eun-hee (Lim Su-jeong), who struggles with a limited lung functionality. She is part of the community for 8 years already, but Young-su easily manages to win her over with his charm. When Eun-hee suggests to Young-su that they could leave the community and live together on the countryside at Young-su's house, the former alcoholic agrees. The two lead a happy life until Young-su becomes victim of old vicious habits again. Moreover, Young-su is also visiting Seoul again, where he meets his ex-girlfriend, who still has feelings for him. Young-su and Eun-hee are still looking for their happiness, but they never seemed to be more distant from it than now...
Review: Dramas that deal with one or more individuals suffering from a terminal illness aren't really that
rare in Korea. Some of them succeed in forcing out some tears from the viewer, some don't. "Happiness" is different
from these dramas in an interesting way, though. Here, the two main leads also suffer from an illness, but with no
word we get to hear that it is a terminal one. Later on, Eun-hee informs us (and Young-su) very dryly that she will
actually die in the near future, but neither Young-su nor the audience take these words for true. Then again, this is
where the film's true strength becomes apparent, and that is its sincerity and directness. Nobody tries to wrench our
heart with melodramatic scenes, instead the director sheds light on his topic with an astounding objectivity, and
thus creates an enormous credibility. Ultimately, "Happiness" also doesn't miss to put the more emotional aspects into
the foreground, too. This is done by some truthfull character drawing and compelling performances by the actors.
Director Hur Jin-ho should be familiar to many Asian movie fans. With his debut film "Christmas in August" he created a touching work about death, resp. a terminal illness, that felt incredibly genuine and uncheesy. His following movies "One Fine Spring Day" or "April Snow" could never reach the level of intensity and profoundness of his former work, but they showed, that Hur is still attaching importance to looking at tragic stories with a certain seriousness, without having to resort to commercial melodramatic elements. "Happiness" continues this tradition and manages to be moving exactly for these reasons.
The film focuses on Young-su, a man who falls victim to alcohol and the fast-paced always-in-a-change life in Seoul. Furthermore, he also smokes and eats fast-food. In short, his health doesn't look too good. Already at the beginning we realize that Young-su isn't exactly a man, who deserves our sympathy right away. But it seems that he wants to become a better person, and so he at least seems to have understood that this isn't the way to live his life any longer.
The community Young-su has found shelter at is somewhat odd. The morning excercises aren't everyone's cup of tea and the laughing-training reminds us of the methods that are used in a support-group. But wait a second: That is absolutely what this actually is! Alcoholics, smokers and all kinds of patients having some sort of sickness gather together to take actions against their illness. The picture that is drawn of this society isn't simply repellently odd, but instead is sketched with a good amount of humor, e.g. when it comes to secret meetings behind the house to eat some forbidden instant noodles or drink a glass of schnapps in a convivial gathering.
Nonetheless, the unfolding love story between Young-su and Eun-hee undoubtedly stands in the plot's focus. It evolves in a very natural way and soon has reached its climax when the two want to leave the community and live together. Still, until the relationship comes this point, there are a few more interesting days in the community, whereas the little side story around Young-su's flat-mate, who is suffering from lung cancer, is especially compelling. Even to this little story Hur can add something special, and at the same time, without one noticing it, he makes us understand the idiocy of smoking.
The pictures of the countryside are very appealing and nice, especially some of the landscape shots. In contrast to this, we also get to see the fast moving life in a big city and an artificial world in shape of night clubs etc. Young-su meets his ex-girlfriend, he starts to dink again and hangs out at the disco like in "good old times". So he is where he has already been before, with the little difference that he willingly chooses this life over a better one with his girlfriend, who waits for him at home. Yes, Young-su cheats on his girlfriend, he drinks, and all in all he is a guy you really have to dislike when you see him like that. In fact, part of us starts to detest him and we even might hate him most of the time for what he does. However, there is also a part of us that can understand his motives. And that's just when the magic and the fascination for this movie starts to unfold. The ambiguity of Young-su's character makes "Happiness" very credible and profound. Actually, there is no message to the film. Furthermore, the movie has to struggle with some pacing problems at times, but the character of Young-su, who just tries to find happiness his own way, remains fascinating until the very end.
Of course, Eun-hee also tries to find her own happiness, but hers doesn't seem to coincide with the one of her boyfriend. Latter one actually wants to dump Eun-hee, but he doesn't have the courage to do so, as he openly says to his girlfriend right to the face. Therefore SHE has to leave him. And he has his ways to force her to do that, since he can be one hell of a mean bastard at times. Still, Young-su can't find his happiness this way either. Back in Seoul he realizes during a short, but very meaningful conversation with his new girlfriend, resp. former ex-girlfriend, that his parties at the night club just make him more aware of the inner emptiness that plagues him. And the life of his ex-girlfriend is just the same. She also can't find her happiness. Thus, Young-su seems to have turned just into the wrong direction in his search for happiness.
Hwang Jeong-min ("You are my Sunshine", "Bloody Tie") deserves some secial words of praise, as he manages with ease to give color to the good and bad sides of his character and succeeds in joining them to a whole. His efforts somewhat outshine those of Lim Su-jeong ("I'm a Cyborg, but that's ok", "A Tale of Two Sisters"), but this doesn't mean that her portrayal is less praiseworthy. On the contrary, her acting really is on a high level.
At the end, things play out the way they have to. But even if this might make the viewer shed a tear or two, these fortunately always remain honest tears. And even if the tears won't start rolling, then this simply shows, how sincere "Happiness" actually is to its audience. The film is moving in its own way. It doesn't matter if it's enough for a tissue or not. Anyway, one thing is for sure: After the last frame has hit the screen, we instantly and intuitively understand the film's true meaning. It is not easy to find your own happiness, and it's even the more difficult to cope with this fact, but you still should never give up looking for it...