Reviewed by Arun Kumar
The posters for South Korean film-maker Jin-ho Hur’s Christmas in August (1998) show a man and a woman standing together closely under a raised blanket or coat, awkwardly & amorously smiling, while the snow falls from above. The poster plus the genre for the film – drama/romance – may make you wrongly interpret this as a passionate love story, riddled with melodramatic gestures.
However, Christmas in August is an unbelievably restrained drama that explores human condition, occupied by thoughts of love, loss and desire. The film’s first frame shows a smiling, bespectacled young guy, in his early 30s, riding his scooter. He is named Jung-won (Suk-kyu Han) and looks like a good man living a peaceful life in the suburbs.
Jung-won owns a small photo studio. He is single, lives with his infirm father. He occasionally visits his sister's family and has few drinks with friends. But, Jung-won seems to be stuck in the past while experiencing a rapidly moving present and we soon learn he has no future. We see him waiting by the hospital lobby and his family members talking about an ‘illness’, although Jung-won only silently contemplates the imminent death.
Nevertheless, Jun-won suddenly meets a beautiful, full-of-life meter maid (or parking officer) Da-rim (Eun-ha Shim), who is assigned to the neighborhood. She regularly visits Jun-won’s studio to develop proof of infractions (for the parking ticket she writes). An elegant friendship develops between these two souls. They don’t talk much, but their silence and smiles conveys a lot.
Christmas in August in many ways reminisces of classic Japanese cinema, especially in the manner it catches the sublime beauty in simple things. Each of the scenes was astoundingly staged by director Jin-ho Hur and cinematographer Yoo Young-kil. Almost every scene imbues images & gestures that are talking about life and death. Children full of life occupy the gracefully composed frames, while loss and yearning for the past hangs around the air. When Jun-won wakes up from sleep (sunlight streams into his room), in the episodic opening sequence, we hear from the principal in a nearby school, talking about ‘new year resolutions’. A little later Jun-won walks through an empty playground, a crematorium, which just seems to insist on what’s lost and what’s going to be lost. From then on, the whole narrative is about how Jun-won lives his life to the fullest in this atmosphere of inevitable doom.
Doctors don’t appear in the story, explaining us what’s ailing the guy. Unlike, most of the terminal illness films, Christmas in August doesn’t treat illness as the central talking point. When Jun-won tells a friend he’s going to die, it’s refuted as a joke (as a means to get more drink). Half-an-hour into the film, it almost becomes hard to believe, how a person can smile and remain calm after knowing he is going to die soon. Then comes a scene in the police station, when Jun-won’s placid facade drops down, illuminating his dreadful feelings about death. It’s a heartbreaking scene, one in which we learn how hard he has tried to mask the feelings of fear & guilt with a little smile. Except for the scene, when Jung-won writes down little instructions to his father to run the photo shop (after his passing), there isn’t an iota of melodrama or contrived emotions. Even that particular scene doesn’t seem to be placed to simply evoke sentiment; it just fits well with Jun-won’s diligent characterization.
Although there are no dramatic twists & turns, the film never, for a moment, gets boring. It's because of the impeccable manner the sequences are staged and the sublime performances from the lead actors. One of my most favorite scenes in the film is when an elderly woman, with a touch of make-up, comes to Jun-won’s shop to take a memorial portrait (to memorialize the person after death). The script spectacularly focuses on the affinity between Da-rim and Jun-won without including a quick scene of them consummating their relationship. There are the usual awkward inter-plays involved in a courtship, but for the large part their gleaming eyes glue us to the screen than uttered words. Suk-hyu Han and Eun-ha Shim’s portrayal of the lead characters are so low-key & pure it would be criminal to call it a ‘performance’.
Christmas in August (97 minutes) is a genuinely moving, invigorating drama that celebrates the best in human nature. It imparts a subtle, vital life lesson for all those who take their life for granted.
Arun Kumar is an ardent cine buff, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at 'Passion for Movies' and 'High on Films'.