×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Busan Film Review: ‘Beautiful Days’

Actress Lee Na-young impresses as a North Korean woman tracked down by her long-since-abandoned son in Jéro Yun’s unhappy debut feature.

Director:
Jéro Yun
With:
Lee Na-young, Jang Dong-yoo, Oh Kwang-rok, Lee Yoo-jun, Soo Hyun-woo. (Korean, Mandarin dialogue)

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.

Busan Film Review: 'Beautiful Days'

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (opener), Oct. 4, 2018. Running time: 104 min.

Production: (Korea-France) A Peppermint & Company presentation, in association with KTH, of a Peppermint & Company, Zorba Prod. production. (Int'l sales: Contents Panda, Seoul.) Producer: Hyunwoo Kim. Executive producer: Guillaume de la Boulaye.

Crew: sta

With: Lee Na-young, Jang Dong-yoo, Oh Kwang-rok, Lee Yoo-jun, Soo Hyun-woo. (Korean, Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Inside Amazon's New Feature Film Strategy

    Amazon's New Film Strategy: Straight-to-Service Titles and Starry Sundance Buys

    It was close to midnight when Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke got the text. The company had failed in its quest to acquire “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a body image dramedy that captivated Salke when she saw it at Sundance. A sales agent on the project messaged her to say that a competitor offered a [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab

    TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab (EXCLUSIVE)

    The TorinoFilmLab has announced the 20 feature projects and five story editor trainees who have been selected to take part in the 2019 edition of ScriptLab, an initiative focused on the development of fiction feature film scripts in early development stage. Beginning in March, this year’s participants will team up with filmmakers from around the [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    North American Box Office Declines From Last Year With Weak Presidents Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” easily won a tepid Presidents Day weekend with a $34.2 million at 3,790 North American locations, estimates showed Monday. Overall domestic moviegoing for 2019 has plunged 22.1% to $1.24 billion as of Monday, according to Comscore. That’s $350 million below the same date a year ago and the lowest figure at this [...]

  • Queen + Adam Lambert perform at

    Queen to Perform at Oscars

    Queen will perform at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, the Motion Picture Academy announced on social media today. The move, which is not completely a surprise, comes in the wake of the blockbuster success of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic about the band and its late singer, Freddie Mercury. The band now performs under the [...]

  • Richard E. Grant Variety Facetime Interview

    Richard E. Grant on How to Survive Awards Season With Flair

    An Oscar would certainly be nice, but Richard E. Grant doesn’t need a golden statue to walk away from this awards season as a winner. The 61-year-old actor landed his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Jack Hock, the loyal accomplice of author-turned-literary forager Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in the biopic “Can You [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    'Alita: Battle Angel' Banks on Foreign Audiences to Save It From Box Office Disaster

    “Alita: Battle Angel” beat expectations with its $27 million debut at the domestic box office, but Fox’s cyberpunk fantasy adventure has a long road to travel before it can claim victory. When it comes to achieving profitability, the CGI-spectacular may never arrive at that particular destination. With a production budget hovering at $170 million (Fox [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content