Chang Jung LimHyeon-kyeong OhChang-wan KimEun-pyo Jeong
Happy Funeral Director
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Mun-il Jang
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Actor: Chang Jung Lim, Hyeon-kyeong Oh, Chang-wan Kim, Eun-pyo Jeong, Kang-hee Choi, Yi-da Jeon
Format: 99 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 19 August 2011
It's a Korean film called Happy Funeral Director. I can't think of a nation better suited to the job. Admittedly Hong Kong has made two films called Happy Funeral in the last decade, while Departures won the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar for Japan. This isn't the only film tackling this kind of subject matter, although I notice that of this batch of films I'm talking about, Korea did it first.
Warning: I'm probably about to talk offensive flapdoodle that comes from nothing more than having seen a few Korean movies.
What makes Korean films different for me is their cruelty. I don't think it's deliberate. They're not doing it to make a point. That's just how they see the universe. Arbitrary shit will destroys people's lives, sometimes bizarrely. In comparison a Japanese film with a similar story would be more self-aware, acting in the knowledge that it's violating a natural order of things, but the impression I get is that Korean films are merely being themselves. This can make for some disturbing black comedies (e.g. Barking Dogs Never Bite, Just Do It!), but it certainly gives them personality. That's what makes The Good The Bad The Weird ten times more scary and attention-grabbing than any Hollywood blockbuster of comparable mayhem, for instance. It's often made me uncomfortable, but I like it.
Okay, that'll do. Happy Funeral Director can be imagined as a Korean precursor of Departures. Both are modest stories about someone starting in the undertaking business, in which nothing much happens for most of the film. We come to appreciate the human value of what they do. Both films could be called heartwarming. It's just that Happy Funeral Director is also, gently, Korean.
Firstly, the undertaking business over there is perhaps less elaborate than you might be expecting. Wrap the corpse in a shroud, dig a hole, push 'em in. That's it. You're not going to get rich doing that for a living, especially in a small rural town where no one's died for a year. However there are some surprising rules, for instance if there are two rival undertaking firms in competition for the same job, the one who'll do it is the first one to hang their paper lantern there. The deceased's family wouldn't appear to have any say in the matter. That was interesting.
Secondly, you'll sometimes want to see more reverence for the deceased. I'll give a run-down of the staff:
1. Grandad, i.e. the director (Hyeon-kyeong Oh), is wonderful. He thinks his job is the happiest in the world, that there's nothing more beautiful in a person's moment of passing and that it's a wonderful thing to be the gatekeeper between the present and the afterlife. He's not airy-fairy about it, mind you, but instead he's just a happy old guy who cares about doing a good job, not about money.
2. Chang Jung Lim hates funerals and dead people. He has lots of debt and wants to sell the family business and move into amusement arcades. At first this looks crass, but in time we realise that he feels things deeply and that he's the most thoughtful of the three youngsters.
3. Chang-wan Kim is the lead role. Bathetically he tries and fails to commit suicide, then in a flash of inspiration realises that he should instead become an undertaker. He has a death wish! People die wherever he goes! Well, that's what he thinks, anyway. He talks himself into an apprenticeship under Hyeon-kyeong Oh, but in fact despite his deep interest and seriousness, he's not ideally suited to the job. He wants the business to make more money. He hands out advertising flyers at a children's sports day. He jokes about how nice it would be if a pretty girl died, or if guns were made legal and people were to start shooting each other. He sets up an agreement with the local hospital that's ingenious but in poor taste.
4. Eun-pyo Jeong is the third assistant and a goofball. He laughs a lot and has inappropriate conversations with Chang-wan Kim. You'd never allow him within a mile of a Western funeral. He fancies a girl with big boobs.
Then, on top of all that, there's the film's gently warped view of how the universe works. There's a question mark about almost every corpse we see, regarding whether or not they're dead. (This is a particularly big deal if you've already buried them.) Grandad met his wife-to-be when she climbed out of her shroud while he was digging. Maybe that's why he loves his job? A corpse will sit up and smile, despite having been found with a knife in her, and you'll be wondering whether this is magical realism or simply the old bat being tougher than she looked. Grandad later says, "You have to be able to play with ghosts to be an undertaker." Yes, this film contain ghosts. Furthermore it doesn't turn into a horror movie for the purpose, but instead makes its ghosts both fleeting and lovely.
It's funny, but in a quiet way that doesn't strain for it. "I bring a shadow of death," is like Chang-wan Kim's idea of a pick-up line. "You're going to die." Scenes like this are inappropriate, but in a natural, unselfconscious way that can drift without your noticing into something more poignant. Does it need saying that not everyone will still be alive for the closing credits?
This film touches on many themes. It's philosophical, but almost by accident. It's about death and loneliness, but it's also gentle, down-to-earth and funny. All their clients died in some way as a result of loneliness, while the main characters are also lonely, in different ways. However on the other hand, all four can be partly defined by a relationship with a woman. Some of those relationships went well and others didn't. That's life. However at the same time the film sees nothing unusual in also showing us naked men, telling tales of arse-poking ghosts and explaining that "the balls rot first". This kind of texture is what I like best in the film, I think. It's sad and happy, not to mention refreshing if you're bracing yourself for an excess of tasteful respect. I like Korean cinema.
"We were so happy to see dead bodies."