The obsessions and compulsions plaguing an uptight, performance-driven Korean household are poignantly dismantled in “Love Never Fails,” a disturbing yet compassionate drama centered around the tightly coiled psyches of three uniquely tormented individuals. Writer-director Min Byung-hun’s absorbing sophomore feature about a stressed-out teenager, her overbearing mom and her unstable dad at times has the overly diagrammed feel of a textbook cautionary tale, warning against the dangers of excessive parental pressure and the culture of striving. But any didacticism is offset by the structural oddities and surreal interludes that come to the fore in the second half, as Min seeks out unconventional means of empathizing with his characters at their lowest ebb. Festivals should continue to beckon following the film’s Busan world premiere.
It’s been more than 15 years since Min and co-director Jamshed Usmonov made their prize-winning debut feature, “Flight of the Bee” (1998), a small-town parable set in Tajikstan, shot in black-and-white and made in homage to the humanist masterworks of Satyajit Ray. Although Min’s long-overdue follow-up is a decidedly grimmer film than “Bee” in subject and style, at times taking on the slow-boiling intensity of a thriller, it’s similarly invested in questions of basic human decency, and the potentially tragic implications of mistreating those around us, loved ones and strangers alike.
High schooler Su-ah (Oh Yu-jin) is one of the best students in her class, but one of the best isn’t good enough for her mother, Eun-ah (Choi Jungwon), who sees her daughter’s worth almost entirely in terms of which university she gets into, and insists that she devote every waking minute to her studies. When Su-ah makes the mistake of spending an afternoon hanging out with her classmate Sowon, a girl whose parents are nicer, humbler and less academically demanding, Eun-ah makes her disdain clear in no uncertain terms and remains blind to the psychological damage she’s inflicting — the full extent of which becomes clear when a teacher informs her that Su-ah has been stealing from other students and cutting her thigh in class.
A parallel narrative centers around Dr. Yoo Sang-hyun (Jang Hyun-sung), who turns out to be Eun-ah’s estranged husband and Su-ah’s father — a fact that isn’t revealed until around the half-hour mark, slyly reinforcing the sense of distance between this haunted figure and his family. As the film opens, he’s been found guilty of sexual harassing his attractive female research assistant, a development that turns out to be a red herring of sorts. Sang-hyun’s deadly sin is not really lust but pride, rooted not only in his high social position, but also in his personal belief that his righteousness should be self-evident to all. This deeply held but ultimately irrational conviction takes an explosive turn not long after he gets into a minor dispute with a cab driver that gradually escalates into a series of full-blown altercations, with unnerving consequences.
Min has structured these dual narratives in an unusual and not entirely intuitive manner, cutting between them seemingly at random, and even planting one major twist that brings Sowon’s family almost coincidentally to the fore. In exploring the ravages of a shame-based, achievement-worshipping society that will carry particular resonance for Asian audiences, the director at first seems to be drawing a simplistic contrast between two types of parents — the rich, overachieving kind who place unreasonable burdens on their children while withholding real affection, and the poor, working-class type who prove far more generous with their love, presumably because they have nothing else to give. The terrible events that follow would seem to bear out that cruel thesis — or rather, they would, if Min’s storytelling didn’t suddenly take an imaginative leap into more elliptical and ambiguous realms.
The film’s second half is distinguished by eerie, poetic touches and images that suggest one of the characters, in particular, is rapidly losing hold of reality — a sensation that viewers will come to share in due course. Time seems to fissure and flow in reverse; enormous, symbolically weighty sculptures begin popping up in the production design; and two key characters carry on a conversation against a verdant backdrop that may be a lush vision of the afterlife. The three central characters all come to seem terribly trapped in prisons of their own devising, and Jang, Choi and Oh gave expertly restrained performances, their calm, unsmiling faces concealing worlds of private anguish.
As its story lurches further into tragedy, reaching a terminus that feels at once horrific and faintly ludicrous, “Love Never Fails” casts any lingering sense of judgment aside. The film’s hallucinatory strangeness seems like nothing less than an attempt to deepen our understanding of these characters and the waking nightmare their lives have become — and, in the end, to help them move beyond it. To that end, the modestly scaled production finds ways to suggest that hope is not altogether lost: Min’s images are largely grim, muted and leached of color, but occasionally give way to rich greens in the dreamlike outdoor sequences, while Jeong Yong-jin’s score gently stirs the emotions with minimal effort.