In a colorful yet emotionally dank apartment, Yeong-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min) ponders the general uselessness of his life as he prepares to move into a sanatorium to receive treatment for his various addictions. That's where he meets Eun-hee (played by Im Soo-jung), a woman who is more terminally ill, yet has decent enough health that she has begun acting as a stabilizing force for the various other patients. Gradually, they fall in love, pondering life outside the sanatorium.
Even though Eun-hee is the character at risk of literal death, interestingly, it's Yeong-soo who is consistently portrayed as most at risk. Yeong-soo has many vices, yet none of them are so severe as to mark him a doomed man. Rather, it's Yeong-soo's propensity to lapse into easy pleasure that corrodes his spirit. Yeong-soo recovers with Eun-hee's help, not because she's a magical romantic savior, but because for the first time Yeong-soo has cause to discuss life beyond terms of petty desire.
Eun-hee, after all, long ago made peace with the fact that she is going to die sooner rather than later, and has resolved to live life in as spirutally fulfilling a way as possible until then. That this way of life happens to coincide perfectly with the sanatorium's medical advice is not coincidental. Eun-hee is able to prolong her lifespan precisely because she wants to live longer. Where there's a will, there's a way. As long as there's hope, Eun-hee can survive outside the sanatorium just on the strength of her human spirit.
Yeong-soo is not so lucky. Even upon being granted a bill of clean health, Yeong-soo is tempted by the material world because that's what the material world does. It offers Yeong-soo illusions of comfort and security. Yeong-soo accepts, at face value, platitudes about how he has to degrade his soul in order to provide for a future. It never occurs to Yeong-soo that, happy as he is at the moment, there's not much immediate need to live his life any other way.
That's what makes Yeong-soo such an essentially tragic figure. It's not like he fully relapses either. Having succumbed to temptation, Yeong-soo quickly realizes just how pathetic the illusion of love his old world offers really is. That kind of lifestyle can't compare to what he has with Eun-hee. Yet Yeong-soo, hating himself and truly believing the old him was the real him all along, there's just nowhere to go except the long road of misery.
Where "Happiness" comes in is appreciating that, tragic arc notwithstanding, for most of the runtime Yeong-soo and Eun-hee genuinely enjoy each other's company and love each other about as sincerely as is possible. That a single mistake was enough to undo all of that does not change the truth they hold about each other in memory. So it is that "Happiness" ends on a surprisingly optimistic note. Knowing that we can be better, and that other people believe we can be better too, is enough to at least eventually bring "Happiness" to someone.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD from YESASIA
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Happiness" + DVD Giveaway"
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