Busan 2021 Review: HEAVEN: TO THE LAND OF HAPPINESS, An Infectious Return to Form for Im Sang-soo
The Busan International Film Festival puts a strong first foot forward this year with its tightly paced and effortlessly entertaining opening film Heaven: To the Land of Happiness, marking a return to form for director Im Sang-soo.
Ace Korean cinema veterans Choi Min-sik and Park Hae-il share a terrific on-screen bromance in a road movie filled with laughs and thrills, and lifted by compelling moments of quiet introspection.
Oldboy star Choi plays Prisoner 203, jailed several years ago for fraud who now has only a few months left on his sentence. But a trip to the hospital reveals an advanced brain tumor and yields a grim prognosis: he has just two weeks left to live.
Nam-sik (Park Hae-il) is a porter at the same hospital, suffering from a rare disease that requires a steady supply of expensive medicine. Unable to stump up the $25,000 for his monthly prescription, he moves around hospitals, stealing what medication he needs a little at a time.
On the same day that 203 gets his bad news, Nam-sik, who is tasked with carting him around, is finally caught. Both pushed to the brink, the two men join forces to escape, using a hearse as their getaway vehicle. The pair soon face an obstacle - they have no cash. Fortunately, when they take time out from their getaway to bury the hearse's payload, they discover that the heavy coffin in the back is laden with cash rather than a corpse.
With bags of bills on their backs and cops and gangsters on their tails, this unlikely duo of sick and sorry men get to know each other's misfortunes as they try to make their way to 203's daughter for one last family reunion before his time runs out.
Active since the late 1990s, director Im has been known as a firebrand filmmaker whose work, such as A Good Lawyer's Wife and The President's Last Bang, has often been provocative. The cynical streak in his films remained evident through the 2010s, in his The Housemaid remake and The Taste of Money, but his latest film finds him in a more mellow and melancholic mood.
The narrative, which is loosely based on the German film Knockin' on Heaven's Door, is more straightforward than what he's done in the past, and instead of presenting a political polemic, Im seems more interested in how people choose to live their lives when they realize time is running out.
A shade of Im's former cynicism remains in Lady Yoon - played by Academy Award-winning Minari star and frequent Im collaborator Youn Yuh-jung - a dying woman who sends her goons after the men who unknowingly stole her cash. In the film's most amusing character entrance, we find her sprawled theatrically on her deathbed. Even as the end draws near, all she cares about is the missing money, rather than the daughter by her side, played by Lee El, who is also more concerned about the cash than her mother.
Choi Min-sik and Park Hae-il are a formidable combination and one of the main reasons why the film works so well. They convey their characters' inner melancholy and show off great comic timing throughout. Im's film finds room for several other memorable supporting roles, among them Yoon Je-moon as a grumpy detective who joins the chase for the criminals, Cho Han-cheol as one of the goons after them, and young actress Lee Jae-in as 203's blue-haired barista daughter.
Guns are a rarity in Korea and can be jarring when seen in Korean films (knives are more common), but while a few do pop up here, the film's big running gag is all the taser guns that the cops and gangsters use, which lead to several hilarious standoffs. Yoon Je-moon gets some of the film's choicest comic moments as the narrative's most frequently-tased character.
The film is occasionally hampered by a by-the-numbers action-comedy score, but where it does excel is its song selection. Filled with terrific indie tunes, the film calls to mind the folk soundtracks of anti-establishment films of the 70s and 80s like The March of Fools or Whale Hunting. Im was part of Korea's student protester generation, but while he's largely put aside his activist themes for this film, the music, the buddy road movie structure, and the ultimate seaside destination all seem to hark back to these earlier works of activist cinema.
Heaven: To the Land of Happiness may seem like a light-hearted work from a filmmaker like Im, but this enjoyable action-comedy romp is also a compelling and contemplative drama from an assured and mature voice.