The plot of the 1998 South Korean film "Christmas in August (Palwol ui Christmas)" (available via Hong Kong import VCD) is simple: photo shop proprietor Jung-won (Han Suk-kyu of "Shiri") is terminally ill, a fact that he has only shared with his father (Goo Shin) and sister (Oh Ji-hye), and none of his closest friends. Preferring to spend his remaining days in his store, biding his time, his life (or more exactly, what is left of it) takes an unexpected turn when Da-rim (Shim Eun-ha), a comely meter maid, becomes a regular customer. Da-rim also finds herself attracted to Jung-won, and she is gradually able to coax the quiet but kind shopkeeper out of his shell. Though Jung-won is appreciative of Da-rim's very forward advances and finds comfort in her company, he never expresses the amorous feelings he has for her. And perhaps out of a misguided desire to spare Da-rim's emotions, Jung-won also does not let Da-rim know about his condition nor what little time he does have left.
While the 'terminal illness' angle in the romance genre has literally been done to death, first-time director Hur Jin-Ho traverses this well-tread territory in a refreshingly understated manner in "Christmas in August". Instead of the heavy-handed and melodramatic schmaltz found in films such as "Autumn in New York" or "Sweet November", Hur uses a low-key approach akin to Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love", where the film's emotional resonance stems not from what the characters say, but what they don't say. Though Jung-won seems to have accepted the inevitable, he lacks the courage to reveal the truth to his friends and loved ones (especially Da-rim). This internal conflict and the tension it creates, underscores the entire film, giving the ending an uncommon level of poignancy.
In the film's earlier scenes, Han's portrayal of Jung-won as a seemingly happy-go-lucky protagonist may mislead some viewers into questioning the veteran actor's thesping abilities, as it seems that his character in a perpetually good mood, laughing everything off. However, as more is revealed about him, it is apparent that this jovial demeanor is Jung-won's 'defense mechanism', disguising the difficult truth about his condition from others...and himself. Despite his inner turmoil and inability to share his innermost thoughts with others, there is a quiet dignity in how Han portrays Jung-won, from the mundane details of his daily routine to the film's weightier moments. Without the benefit of dialogue, Han is able to speak volumes with the subtlest of facial expressions, such as in what may be the film's most powerful moment, when he expresses his heartfelt affection for Da-rim while watching from afar.
Complementing Han's performance is Shim's award-winning portrayal of Da-rim. There is an earnest quality to her performance, and like her co-star, much of it relies on the subtlety of expression and non-verbal cues. From her initial appearance as a demanding customer, to her growing intimacy with Jung-won, and finally to her heartbreak as Jung-won's lack of courage gets the better of him, Shim is an integral component of the story's emotional core, as well as part of the film's ultimate tragedy.
In addition to developing a strong following at the South Korean box office, "Christmas in August" swept the Korean Film Awards in 1998, landing Best Film, Director, Actress, and Cinematography, all well deserved. This is a singular romance in which no one actually says "I love you" or displays any other such overt signs of affection, yet the emotional undercurrent is no less stirring. The subtle approach taken by director Hur Jin-ho, as well as the powerful yet restrained performances of leads Han Suk-kyu and Shim Eun-ha, make "Christmas in August" an absolutely unforgettable motion picture.