A terminally ill prisoner and a despondent hospital worker steal a hearse stuffed with mob money in “Heaven: To the Land of Happiness.” This combination of odd-couple road movie and crime comedy moves along nicely for about half the running time but loses momentum when sentimentality and drawn-out male bonding take precedence over the film’s more playful components. Well served by the casting of A-list performers Choi Min-sik (“Old Boy”) and Park Hae-il (“The Host”) as the unlikely allies, “Heaven” should be warmly welcomed by local audiences but the latest offering from distinguished South Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo is unlikely to enjoy the same international exposure as his best-known works, such as “The Housemaid.”
Originally selected for Cannes 2020 but unable to screen owing to the pandemic, Im’s film instead received its world premiere as the opening-night attraction at Busan 2021. A very different proposition from his emotionally spiky and politically provocative works including “The President’s Last Bang,” “A Good Lawyer’s Wife” and “The Taste of Money,” this jaunt around some gorgeously photographed Korean countryside finds Im in a much more laid-back and reflective frame of mind.
In brisk opening segments we meet a convicted embezzler known only as Prisoner 203 (Choi). With the end of his five-year stretch in sight 203 discovers he has an inoperable brain tumor and is given a fortnight to live. Before his time is up, 203 wants to ask his distant daughter (Lee Jae-in) for forgiveness and then die by the seaside. Working at the hospital where 203 has been diagnosed is Nam-sik (Park), a meek-and-mild orderly who’s been stealing the prohibitively expensive drugs he needs to combat Fabry’s disease, a crippling and frequently life-shortening affliction.
When 203 decides to bust out of the hospital, he finds an accomplice in Nam-sik, who’s about to be caught by authorities and figures he may as well go along for the ride. A nifty series of coincidences finds the duo hijacking a hearse containing a coffin belonging to a crime family. After deciding to stop and bury the box the duo discover it’s stuffed with cash.
Im’s screenplay hums along enjoyably as 203 and Nam-sik scoop up as much money as they can carry and set their sights on reaching 203’s daughter before it’s too late. Chasing them is an interesting gallery of oddballs including a bullheaded, none-too-bright cop (Yoon Je-moon) and two goons (Cho Han-cheul and Im Seong-jae) employed by terminally ill crime clan matriarch Madame Yoon (Youn Yuh-jung). Appearing in her sixth Im feature, and an Oscar winner for “Minari,” national treasure Youn steals every scene she’s in as the bedridden boss who might be at death’s door but can’t stop belittling and berating her glamorous daughter (Lee El) about the missing moolah.
But neither the entertaining Madame Yoon nor her lively minions play much part in the film’s middle section. Im’s screenplay slows dramatically as 203 and Nam-sik swap tales of woe before bickering, busting up and eventually becoming inseparable best buddies with a new appreciation for life in the face of impending death. Choi and Park are very good together and there’s a sincerity in the scripting that will keep patient viewers engaged, but the story’s sprightly pacing and free-wheeling spirit takes a noticeable hit when the pursuing pack of cops and crooks is relegated to the sidelines.
“Heaven” regains at least some of its mojo with an exciting chase in which 203 and Nam-sik steal the motorcycle of a female cop (Susanna Noh), and the return of Madame Yoon’s thugs for one last stab at settling the score. Though not aiming for big belly laughs, the script offers a good deal of wry humor and has a terrific running gag involving the use of taser guns.
Despite its slow patches and a score that indulges in a little too much 1970s-style “wacka wacka” disco guitar for its own good, “Heaven” reaches a destination that may be very familiar but should leave many viewers with the same kind of feeling as a character who says in a moment of reflection “it felt warm and made me happy.”