Fantasia 2022: Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness (South Korea, 2022)

This year I was fortunate enough to be given press credentials for the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival. I will be writing about what I watch here and at the Cultural Gutter in Notes and in a final round-up piece in August.

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In Im Sang-soo’s Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness (South Korea, 2021), the iconic actor Choi Min-sik brings his all to a story of a dying man, prisoner 203, escaping custody a hospital where he is under guard. He has two weeks maximum to live. 203 is aided by Nam-sik (Park Hae-il), a hospital worker who drifts from hospital to hospital so he an steal the unaffordable pharmaceuticals he needs to treat his own chronic condition.

In case it seems like Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness is a tragic drama, you should know that it’s more like D.O.A. (1950 or 1988) if the protagonist were not investigating his own murder, but on a kind of road trip while trying to die on his own terms. In fact, in case you didn’t notice a number of references to film noir that Im Sang-soo wrote into the film, 203 says, “Life is a goddamn noir movie.” 

The film begins in media chase as 203 and Nam-sik are pursued by police, including an old school detective who is ready for a shootout with 203. But it’s not just the police after them. 203 and Nam-sik are interrupted during 203’s escape in the hospital men’s room. Two men in funereal black and carrying a coffin need to use the restroom just as 203 and Nam-sik have overpowered the cop guarding 203 in the first of many tasings. One (Jo Han-chul) is a “philosophical thug,” who wants to take care of business quietly. The other (Im Sung-jae), sporting a remarkable bowl cut, seems to enjoy his thug life and the strange things they come across. At first, the men seem willing to leave each other alone. But, of course, it doesn’t work out that way and 203 and Nam-sik end up on the run in a hearse carrying the coffin. 

There is some interesting gender stuff going on that I’d like to write about in more depth once Heaven is more widely available. For now, there are parallels between the cops and the thugs pursuing 203 and Nam-sik. The thugs are working for Madame Yoon, played by Youn Yuh-jung as a magnificently Dietrich-ish gang boss who is frail, bed ridden and hooked up to an IV. Only the thought of getting the coffin back perks her up enough to prevent her from immediately dying. She tells her daughter, “You’ll have to be tough, almost merciless. That’s how you beat the insignificants and become rich.” The non-philosophical thug has no respect for her. And the hotheaded detective resents answering to his female precinct captain even when she’s right. Maybe especially when she’s right. And there’s some things to be said about capitalism, wealth, and healthcare in the film, too. 

Heaven is a departure from the films starring Choi Min-sik that usually get released in North America–or at least the United States and Canada. He’s wonderful in Kim Jee-woon’s dark comedy, The Quiet Family (2007), tragically terrifying in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), just plain terrifying in Park Hoon-jung’s I Saw The Devil (2010), excellent at being an awful person in Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: The Rules of the Time (2012), but Choi shows a vulnerability that made me cry in Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness.

The film has a great soundtrack, too. It reminds me of the road movies of the 1960s, but instead of the youth discovering America and themselves, 203 is trying to reconnect with himself as a person while on his way out. 

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I received a review copy of Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness. Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness andVanguard program blogs. She has written for Biff Bam Pop, Soldier of Cinema, Mezzanotte, Teleport City, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and Popshifter. She’s appeared on CBC radio, The Projection Booth podcast, The Feminine Critique podcast, and the Infernal Brains podcast. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.

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