Whether you are talking about "Shakespeare in Love" or "She's All That", the peak of emotional release in your typical romance comes when the heroes meet face-to-face, declaring their undying love for one another in the shadow of the insurmountable challenges that threaten to tear them apart. However, what happens when you have a romance in which the protagonists never actually meet? Can the same level of emotional intensity be achieved? Well, if the South Korean-Chinese co-production "Failan (Pairan)" from 2001 is any indication, the answer is undoubtedly 'yes'. Not only does "Failan" brilliantly pull off the conceit of crafting a romance between two characters without even a single shared conversation, but it does it so well that it will make even the most cynical of moviegoers weepy-eyed.
The film starts off as what appears to be yet another gangland saga, one that is centered around Kang-jae (popular Korean actor Choi Min-shik, seen recently in "Shiri"), a slovenly small-time hoodlum based in Inchon. Though he acts and talks tough, it quickly becomes obvious that his bark is far worse than his bite, as he is easily beaten back by an old lady while trying to collect protection money, and is considered to be a joke by his fellow gang members. Even his long-time 'friend' and boss, ruthless gang leader Yong-shik (Son Beyong-ho) complains that he is 'too soft' to be in 'the business'. Unfortunately, it seems that his only shot at redemption is to take the fall for Yong-shik, who has murdered a rival gang member, by going to jail for ten years. In return, not only will he earn the respect of his peers, but he will also have enough money to buy the fishing boat he has been dreaming about. With few prospects and even less dignity, Kang-jae decides to do the time.
However, before he can turn himself in, the police notify him that his wife, Kang Failan (Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung of "The Legend of Zu"), has just died, requiring him to head out of town to claim the body. The film then jumps back one year, where we see the arrival of Failan in South Korea from Mainland China, who has come to live with her aunt following her mother's death. Unfortunately, she learns that her aunt had emigrated to Canada two years prior. Penniless and alone in a strange land, Failan heads to a local employment agency, but because of her tourist visa, she is not allowed to work.
Desperate, Failan agrees to a paper marriage to Kang-jae, whom she has never met, which allows her to stay in the country and work. In return, Kang-jae makes some quick cash and the local triads have a new worker whom they can sell. After a close call with Korea's sex trade, Failan eventually settles in a seaside town as a laundress. Despite her long working hours, she remains ever-appreciative of her marriage to Kang-jae, and eventually falls in love with him because of this singular act of 'kindness'. Meanwhile, in the present, as Kang-jae makes his way to pick up Failan's body, he slowly learns about the woman he married on paper and quickly forgot about-- her struggles, her loneliness, her illness, and the feelings she had for him.
"Failan" is the sophomore feature of director Song Hae-seong, who made a splash in 1999 with another time-twisting romance, "Calla". This time around, working with acclaimed Japanese novelist Jiro Asada and his best-selling novel "Love Letter" (which had been previously made into a memorable Japanese film in 1995), Song has created a stirring romantic tragedy with an emotional wallop that is not easily shaken. Executed with the same quiet subtlety seen in other recent Korean romances (such as "Christmas in August" and "Il Mare"), "Failan" poignantly and convincingly illustrates the tragic missed opportunity between its two star-crossed lovers, while eloquently dissecting what it means, and how it feels, to be in love. Despite having never met, they end up giving each other the dignity and self-respect that their lives had been missing for so long. Unfortunately, the realization of what he meant to Failan comes to Kang-jae comes too late, leading to the film's most heartbreaking scene, which is compounded by the irony of how she treasured what he quickly forgot or cast off.
As the film's titular character, Cheung easily does the best work of her career. Though her Mandarin is sloppy, and she occasionally lapses into Cantonese for no apparent reason, her sympathetic turn as the quiet Failan is a marvel to watch. Up until now, after having seen her 'act' in films such as "Tokyo Raiders (Dong jing gong lue)" and "Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau)", I had never considered Cheung a serious actress. But all that changed with "Failan" as she breathed life into the story's tragic heroine, particularly with two of the film's more memorable sequences: Failan using quick-thinking to avoid being sold to a strip club, and the heart-wrenching first night at her new home. It is also easy to see why Choi, as Cheung's love interest, is one of Korea's most popular actors-- despite his character's slovenly appearance and boorish behavior, Choi evokes sympathy for Kang-jae with a nuanced performance that reveals the man's insecurity and gentle spirit.
Despite playing at Cannes last year, "Failan" has yet to hit these shores in terms of a theatrical release, and is currently only available via Hong Kong-import DVD and VCD. Alas, if "Failan" had been released in North America last year, it would have undoubtedly made my top 10 list for 2001, as well as received my best wishes for a Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Though "Failan" may be difficult to track down, it is certainly well worth the effort. Like last year's "The Road Home (Wo de fuqin muqin)", "Failan" takes a relatively simple story and gently weaves an unforgettable emotional experience of unparalleled depth and power.
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