Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik) is a small-time gangster, eking out a living by selling porn videos to teenagers in the small video shop he manages. Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a young Chinese woman who comes to Korea looking for her remaining relatives after her parents die. Failan agrees to a paper marriage with Kang-jae so that she can stay in Korea, after she discovers that her relatives have emigrated to Canada. Just as Kang-jae is about to make a deal to serve 10 years in prison on the behalf of a big-time gangster, he finds out that Failan has died. During his trip to pick up his wife’s ashes, Kang-jae discovers that Failan had fallen in love with him and changes his mind about going back to prison: a decision which can only led to tragedy.
This short synopsis makes Failan sound like a straightforward romantic melodrama, but in fact there is little that is straightforward about it with the ‘romance’ between Kang-jae and Failan unfolding through a series of flashbacks which fracture Kang-jae’s present journey to retrieve Failan’s possessions. Failan’s unrequited love for Kang-jae is told through letters to him that he discovers amongst her belongings.
However while Choi Min-sik’s is excellent, as always, in this role as a petty gangster whose downward spiral has almost robbed him of his humanity, Cecilia Cheung does not convince as the dying Failan who is meant to be the emotional core of the film. While I am aware that Failan has been seen by many critics as one of the best films of New Korean Cinema, I was unconvinced. As much as I appreciated the construction and aesthetics of the film, I found it lacking. I much preferred Director SONG’s later Maundy Thursday/우리들의 행복한 시간, in which the doomed relationship between the lovers is fully fleshed out and believable. Failan was like a beautiful piece of postmodern art, all surface and no substance. I just hope that the emotional core of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow/ 英雄本色 (1996) one of the best examples of ‘balletic bloodshed’ has been preserved in Director SONG’s recent remake ( 무적자: 2010).