In the 1999 film "Happy End (Haepi endeu)", one of the more controversial films to come out of South Korea in recent years, a man learns that his wife is cheating on him and comes up with an extreme solution to the problem. And despite what is implied by the title, the film's resolution leaves the protagonist debating whether or not he has achieved his 'happy end', or merely substituted one torment with another.
In a scene that borders on soft-core pornography, the film's startling opening graphically depicts a vigorous lovemaking session between career woman Bo-ra (Jeon Do-yeon, seen recently in "I Wish I Had a Wife") and her lover Il-beom (Ju Jin-mo of "Musa"), a former college sweetheart. This is then sharply contrasted with Bo-ra's staid domestic life and her passionless marriage to the older Min-ki (Choi Min-shik of "Shiri" and "Failan"). An out-of-work former banker, Min-ki has had little luck and ambition in finding gainful employment, and prefers to spend his days reading romance novels in a used bookstore, or watching soap operas on television. Together, Bo-ra and Min-ki have a baby daughter, and raising her seems to be the only thing they have in common.
However, as the film unspools, Min-ki gradually pieces together the evidence of Bo-ra's infidelity, and is devastated by what he finds. And though the shiftless side of his character seems quietly resigned to live with what his wife has done, he is soon galvanized into taking far more aggressive measures when his wife's indiscretions threaten the well being of their infant daughter. Taking cues from the mystery books that have become the new staple of his reading habits, Min-ki meticulously plots and executes his uncompromising solution.
What is most striking about "Happy End" is how first-time writer/director Jung Ji-woo portrays each of the characters in the love triangle, who each have their reasons, both right and wrong, for what they do. Min-ki is shown initially in an unsympathetic light, as he seems content to enjoy a couch-potato lifestyle on his wife's salary. However, by the second half, he is perhaps the most sympathetic character on the screen, as he is reeling from the discovery of his wife's infidelity and abhorred by how her irresponsibility lands their daughter in the hospital. Similar mixed emotions arise out of Min-ki's radical response to the affair, which is gruesomely depicted. And even though Min-ki is successful in exacting his revenge, it is clear that Min-ki is haunted by what he has done and his expected sense of satisfaction remains elusive.
In contrast, Bo-ra's motivation for the affair seems credible in the film's first half as she seems trapped in a marriage with a shiftless husband who barely says a word to her. However, towards the second half, her character becomes far more complex, as she tries desperately to break off her relationship with Il-beom, leading to a tragic lapse in judgement. Finally, even the interloper, Il-beom, is given some credible motivation for wanting to stay with Bo-ra, depending on how audiences interpret a key conversation where he asserts that Bo-ra's daughter is in fact his.
As the cuckolded and quiet husband, Choi's performance is in contrast to his recent high-profile roles in "Shiri" and "Failan", yet no less effective. Popular actress Jeon, who starred opposite popular actors Han Suk-kyu ("Shiri") in the 1997 hit romance "The Contact (Cheob-sok)" and Sol Kyung-gu ("Peppermint Candy") in 2001's "I Wish I Had a Wife (Nado anaega isseosseumyeon johgessda)", casts off her usual warm and perky screen persona in her portrayal of the complex and sexually liberated Bo-ra. Finally, Jun is passable as Il-beom, with his portrayal of the strong and silent type a little too reminiscent of his similar work in the historical epic "Musa".
"Happy End" has developed quite an international following since its controversial run in South Korea in 1999. It has become a favorite programming piece at numerous film festivals around the world, was nominated for Best Asian Film at the recent Hong Kong Film Awards, and will soon be receiving a North American DVD release in June of this year. Though the subject matter and execution is rather disturbing, director Jung has created a compelling and suspenseful drama which uncompromisingly details an explosive situation for which there can never be a happy ending.