Going by Hur Jin-ho’s track record for broken relationships and tragic melodrama, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the title of his latest film Happiness just might be a little ironic. The impression of events taking a familiar turn seem to be confirmed in the very first scene of the film where Young-su (Hwang Jung-min) turns up at his girlfriend’s apartment to find that she’s changed the combination and locked him out. Although he is planning to go away for a couple of years, he still isn’t ready to accept that the relationship is over. Considering in the past how Hur Jin-ho characters have moped along for long periods following a broken relationship, it’s surprising that, after a drunken night out at the nightclub he manages, Young-su seems to be ready to move on.
Young-su’s problems lie elsewhere – he’s bankrupt and suffering from a serious illness, cirrhosis. Gathering together what money he has left, he goes to a healing centre out in the country. There he meets Eun-hee (Lim Soo-jung), a timid young woman who has already been there at the House of Hope for a number of years suffering from lung disease, and a relationship develops between them. The chances of both making a recovery on their own is slim, but they believe they can help each other and form a pact, taking their fate into their own hands - Eun-hee promises she will help Young-su get cured, even if the effort kills her.
The situation may sound contrived and calculated for a weepy melodrama – which after the airbrushed slush of the director’s last film April Snow is something to be justifiably concerned about – but Hur Jin-ho seems to have rediscovered the hard-hitting simplicity and delicacy of his earliest films, Christmas in August and One Fine Spring Day. Happiness fits perfectly into the same tone and mood as those earlier films and the title, like all the director’s films, is not ironic, but deliberately ambiguous with bittersweet undertones. Happiness in Hur Jin-ho films can be found, but not in the expected places. For Hur it is in situations of great loss, tragedy, impending death and major life upheavals that his characters find the opportunity to transform their lives for the better, finding the strength to move on and learn to live again. There’s nothing more profound to Happiness than that and Hur paints the beauty of those simple moments, the countryside and the seasons with light and with music.
Showing that the modern lifestyle as it is lived in the cities is not healthy and that there is a need to get back to basics to discover what is really important in life ios not however an original observation, and certainly not even unique in Korean cinema at the moment. In Happiness moreover, Young-su initially makes the change perhaps a little too smoothly, adjusting quickly to the regime of the health centre and life in the country with Eun-hee. You don’t get any impression that the man who moves to the country is the same person you see at the start of the film on a voyage of self-destruction. This is intentional and the director wants to make the distinction clear. Young-su is indeed two different people, and if he goes back to Seoul – and inevitably the attraction of his old lifestyle will start to exert its influence – he’ll fall back into the old ways that will kill either himself or Eun-hee.
That’s certainly very schematic, but awareness makes the events that unfold no less agonising – the beauty of the film however is in the manner in which Hur Jin-ho follows the path. There is no attempt to wallow in sentimental melodrama, or devise heart-breaking twists to manipulate the feelings of the viewer – the message is a simple one and Hur Jin-ho moves inexorably towards its inevitable conclusion. In place of dramatic developments and character complexity the director allows the pace and tone of the film, as well as the beauty of the cinematography, to capture the simple truths and contradictions of what true happiness is, what it means to find it and what it means to lose it.
Happiness is released in Korea by KD Media as a lavish Limited Edition 3-disc set. The sturdy embossed fold-out digipak with magnetic clasp holds the three discs – Disc 1, The Film, Disc 2, The Extra Features, Disc Three, a CD of the Soundtrack, and a set of 4 promotional photo cards for the film. The set is in NTSC format, and is encoded for Region 3.
The film is presented anamorphically at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The print is clean and the transfer quality is reasonably good with only a few minor problems. The image looks over filtered, resulting in blacks appearing rather flat and prone to discolour into a blue haze with low-level noise. The tone is a little bright with high contrast, which doesn’t allow true colours to come through. The transfer is progressive and holds fairly stable for the most part. On a CRT display there was some slight judder evident in slow camera pans, but this doesn’t seem to present any problems for progressive displays. Overall, the presentation of the film is excellent and any technical issues are minor and have little impact on the film.
There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Both are fine, the surround mix in particular giving the film’s ambience, music score and dialogue a wider range to work within, coming to life in appropriate places where its impact is required.
The film comes with optional English subtitles. These are white in a strong, bold font. There are no issues whatsoever with the grammar or spelling and the film appears to be well translated with the appropriate tone.
A three-disc set, the Korean Limited Edition of Happiness is packed with extra features, but without any subtitles few of them will be of any value to English speaking viewers. The film itself comes with a full-length Commentary by director Hur Jin-ho with lead actors Hwang Jung-min and Lim Soo-jung.
Disc Two contains two a lengthy making of feature Story of Happiness (31:59), showing behind the scenes filming and brief interview snippets with the director and cast as well as a shorter supplemental Making Of (7:49). There are similar short featurettes on the Art Making Of "House of Hope" (8:15) which looks behind the scenes at the art direction; a Laugh Treatment (9:39) showing the preparation for the laughing therapy sessions at the House of Hope; and Interviews on "What Is Happiness..." (4:41) featurette, where cast and crew briefly give their thoughts on the subject of what happiness is. The eleven Deleted Scenes (11:57) are brief, but worth viewing despite the lack of subtitles. Timecoded and letterboxed, they fill in little gaps with incidental details, and just seem to have been trimmed for length. There is footage of the Poster Shoot (5:12) taken in various locations and photo studios. The composer Jo Sung-woo speaks briefly about the Making Of Soundtrack (4:16) and there is some footage of the recording sessions.
Disc 3 is a CD of the melancholic Original Sountrack (39:13), which is quite beautiful and stands up well on its own.
There’s nothing particularly new from Hur Jin-ho in Happiness and his latest film may seem to be a bit lacking in complexity of plot and characterisation, but there is still much to admire the director’s typically bittersweet treatment of his favourite themes, finding beauty and strength in the most unexpected of places. Hur is certainly capable of a little more depth and complexity in his examination of human feelings than this, but Happiness is nonetheless a welcome return to form after the relative blandness of April Snow. English viewers may not be able to benefit from all the extra features in this 3-disc Korean Limited Edition, but the presentation of the film itself is excellent, and the soundtrack CD is certainly worth owning.