There is, at most, one beautiful day contained in Korean director Jéro Yun’s “Beautiful Days,” whose ironic title refers to a kind of false nostalgia for a family bliss never experienced by any of its characters. That’s not to say the film is a miserabilist chore exactly, though it very nearly could have been, had Yun — expanding upon refugee themes previously featured in his award-winning nonfiction portrait “Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman” — instead opted to wallow in the resentment to which any one of his bruised and emotionally abused protagonists is clearly entitled.
As it happens, the Korean-French co-production — and Yun’s first narrative feature — is quite gorgeous, bathing its characters in reflected blue and red neon as it burrows its way back in time, ever so slowly excavating its central mystery. Told from the perspective of an embittered young man sent to fetch the mother who abandoned him as a child, “Beautiful Days” privileges Chinese teen Zhenchen’s (Jang Dong-yoon) confused understanding of why his mother (Lee Na-young) left him when he was 5.
That is already more than Yun explains at the outset, offering an ethereal view of Lee captured in the neon glow of a nightclub dance floor, before cutting to the relatively unglamorous room Zhenchen shares with his father (Oh Kwang-rok), an ailing Chinese-Korean man who presses his son with a dying wish: to find his long-departed wife. Zhenchen obediently makes his way from China to South Korea, where the film rejoins him, studying his face as he lurks in a sketchy bar.
Yun still hasn’t clearly divulged Zhenchen’s reason for being there, but in time, we understand the emotions swirling behind his angry eyes: Somehow, Zhenchen convinced himself that if his mother had found it possible to walk out on him and his father a dozen years earlier, it must have been for a better life, but instead, he finds her working in a joint like this and living with a lowlife (Seo Hyun-woo) so much less noble than the man she left behind.
The truth is more complicated than that, but only because Yun chooses to make it so. The real explanation is quite simple, rendered complicated so as to privilege a kind of humanistic poetry — one attuned to the ever-shifting sense of responsibility for the characters’ present unhappiness — over by-the-numbers melodrama. To shed some light without spoiling: Zhenchen’s mother was raised an orphan in North Korea, where a pimp-like thug (Lee Yoo-jun) married her off to Zhenchen’s father, then resurfaced five years later to collect his debt. While somewhat clunkier than Atom Egoyan’s intricately nonlinear puzzle-movies of the mid-’90s, the film somewhat similarly illuminates a family’s secrets as it delves deeper into its collective past.
Technically, a mere 15 minutes of screen time pass between Zhenchen waking up beside his father in the opening scene and the night spent reunited with his mother — who softly sings to her now-grown son as he sleeps — but there’s nearly 15 years of personal history to unravel before Zhenchen’s anger can be fully understood. That sweet lullaby, along with a recurring note about the young man’s refusal to eat soybean soup, are perhaps the only two remotely sentimental details Yun permits himself here, re-contextualizing our understanding of both each time he revisits them. He also allows Zhenchen a startling act of violence, in which he beats up the man now living with his mother, in order to seed the question: Where does Zhenchen get his temper? The answer changes with each layer deeper into his past the film digs, complicating what the young man thinks he knows about his parents — whose identities may not even be as he imagined.
Like “Mrs. B.,” the North Korean woman Yun profiled in his earlier documentary, Zhenchen’s mother has made enormous sacrifices to escape a past whose hardships the film opts not to illustrate. Rather, Yun focuses on the key moments from the turbulent quarter-century that follows, relying on Lee to convincingly embody this character at each stage of her liberation: from a meek, pigtail-wearing teen (no older than her son is now and already pregnant) to terrified sex worker in the early 2000s to the strong, fiercely independent woman in the red leather jacket whom we meet when the film opens. Discovering the weaker person she was earlier in life makes her that much stronger in our eyes and eventually, in Zhenchen’s as well.