The hostility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간) – ★★★★☆

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간)

Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간)

Typically in the romance genre, the manner in which love begins is through trite happenstance – an accidental injury; a misunderstanding; a hot tub time machine. Not so in Maundy Thursday (AKA Our Happy Time (우리들의 행복한 시간), which buckles all conventions in the development of love. 

The romantic drama features a rebellious suicide survivor who, with regular visits to jail at the behest of her Catholic nun aunt, becomes enamored with a death row inmate. Far removed from traditional representations of romance, Maundy Thursday is a riveting cinematic delight, a highly character-driven film that exemplifies the importance of sharing sadness as well as happiness in the creation of love.

Moon Yu-jeong (Lee Na-young (이나영) is a suicide survivor, presenting a particular problem for her devoutly Catholic family and overbearing, selfish mother. Yu-jeong’s aunt, a Catholic nun, persuades her niece to join her on her weekly volunteer work at a prison, attempting to give hope and salvation to the prisoners. Reluctantly agreeing, Yu-jeong and her aunt meet rapist and murderer Jung Yeon-soo (Kang Dong-won (강동원). Initially incredibly hostile towards each other, the pair gradually reveal more about their tortured pasts, their hopes, their fears, and become irrevocably changed through the love that blossoms between them.

After her latest suicide attempt, Yu-jeong is sickened by the selfishness of her family

After her latest suicide attempt, Yu-jeong is sickened by the selfishness of her family

Maundy Thursday is a highly compelling and poignant romantic drama that embraces the darker and more tragic aspects of society in its depiction of love. Such a philosophy is ultimately what makes the film so unique and enthralling, as screenwriters Jang Min-seok (장민석) and Park Eun-yeong (박은영) never shy from exploring how character evolves through the unfair machinations of society, which director Song Hae-seong (송해성) wonderfully conveys. Working class Yeon-su has been abandoned by his mother and delved into a life of crime that has led to his incarceration; Yu-jeong is from a privileged upper-middle class background yet the overbearing Catholicism and rigid lifestyle has left her scarred. Technically two such protagonists should never become intertwined yet the narrative is so organic and flows so well that their meetings – which occur every Thursday – and the development of their relationship are natural and believable. Scenes in which the duo share their emotional pain, eloquently told through dialogue and flashbacks, are simultaneously heartbreaking and endearing revealing not only the suffering endured by people of all walks of life but how such turmoil can bring them together once shared. Acknowledging personal trauma, confronting it, and sharing it with someone special are the driving forces within Maundy Thursday, and the affection and love that blossoms from such pain are masterfully conveyed and deeply poignant.

A social group that does not express such qualities within Maundy Thursday are members of the Catholic faith. The film wonderfully explores how the concept of religion can be taken and abused by a practicing individual with horrifying results. With the exception of the kind Catholic priests and nuns within the prison, Catholicism is represented through Yu-jeong’s family, primarily her abhorrent mother. Director Song Hae-seong (송해성) masterfully portrays the eccentric and arrogant nature of the Catholic family, with expensive ornaments adorning the rigidly structured family home, the repressed clothing style of turtle-necks and high collars, and the snobbery and ignorance in spite of family trauma. The decor within the family home are an amalgamation of reds, oranges and yellows conveying the genuine ‘hell’ that exists there, while the pale-faced black-clothed mother, who is equal parts scary and manipulative, functions as the devil. Yet only Yu-jeong perceives the hypocrisy of her family, chastised for stating truths to people more concerned with rhetoric and status. Yu-jeong’s loneliness and rebellious nature are emphasized to such a degree that it is impossible not to empathize with the character, making her relationship with inmate Yeon-su all the more touching.

The hosility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

The hostility between Yu-jeong and Yeon-su evolves into fondness

Lee Na-young is absolutely captivating in her performance as Yu-jeong. The actress masterfully conveys the tumultuous emotional well deep within the character, from her agitated moments of familial defiance and indifference to criticism through to more challenging maternal confrontations and expressions of past anguish. Lee Na-young’s performance is by far the most captivating, compelling and poignant aspect of Maundy Thursday and as such the film is ultimately her story.

Kang Dong-won takes more of a supportive role in his performance as Yeon-su, yet he also conveys a staggering emotional range. His ill-mannered behaviour and resolute desire to die are highly engaging, yet the occurrence of more dramatic scenes such as confronting the mother of his victim and his subsequent breakdown create incredible empathy with the killer. The fashion in which Yeon-su evolves from a man without hope to finding happiness is wonderfully portrayed by the highly skilled actor.

Despite himself, Yeon-su discovers happiness due to Yu-jeong

Despite himself, Yeon-su discovers happiness due to Yu-jeong

Verdict:

The focus on societal and religious discourses, and the love that can develop through sharing personal trauma, make Maundy Thursday a unique and incredibly compelling romantic drama. The performances by the central couple are wonderful and the manner in which they develop feelings of romance are organic and highly convincing. Maundy Thursday is an excellent portrayal of alternative romance, and a poignant reminder of the value of sharing pain and happiness within a relationship.

★★★★☆

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Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Secret Reunion (의형제) – ★★★★☆

Secret Reunion (의형제)

Secret Reunion (의형제)

The representation of an unspoken bond between the people of North and South Korea has widely existed in contemporary Korean cinema, emphasising the lack of difference between the two and the futility of fighting on ideological grounds. Arguably originating in Kang Je-gyu‘s Shiri (1999), which introduced a softer stance on communism and featuring common ground and relationships, the film was followed by other high profile additions including JSA (2000) and Welcome to Dongmakol (2005), and even television dramas such as Iris (2009).

Director Jang Hoon’s (장훈) second feature, and his first since breaking away from mentor Kim Ki-duk, addresses the concept in a different manner. Secret Reunion (의형제) – also known as ‘Brothers’ and ‘Blood Brothers’ – rejects the oft-utilised theme of war in exploring the notion of Korean brotherhood and instead focuses on more domestic notions of family and kinship. The result is a highly compelling and engaging thriller featuring great direction and wonderful performances, making Secret Reunion one of the best examples of the concept in recent years.

Lee Han-gyoo (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is the team leader of a specialist task force within the National Intelligence Service (NIS). His mission is to capture or kill the North Korean terrorist known only as ‘Shadow’ (Jeon Gook-hwan (전국환), yet the extremist is incredibly elusive. Working on a tip-off, Han-gyoo prepares his team for Shadow’s next strike against a North Korean defector, refusing to call in back-up in a bid to receive credit. Yet unbeknownst to Han-gyoo, Shadow employs the help of young and talented protege Song Ji-won (Kang Dong-won (강동원) for the execution. As the NIS move in to capture Shadow the mission goes horribly awry resulting in the deaths of several officers, with Shadow and Ji-won escaping incarceration. Several years later Han-gyoo, dismissed from the NIS for his conduct, coincidently meets Ji-won at a mining plant. Considered a traitor by the North, Ji-won has also been deserted. In a bid to redeem themselves, the men form a business partnership in order to steal information from each other and regain their honour.

Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Secret Reunion was the second highest grossing film of 2010 and it’s clear to see why. The script by Jang Min-seok (장민석) is highly character driven, featuring both central protagonists as flawed human beings striving to better themselves and define their existences. The writer skillfully combines an array of genre motifs from espionage-orientated action to domestic comedy whilst never feeling contrived, and as such the relationship that develops between Han-gyoo and Ji-won is organic and engaging. Director Jang Hoon capitalises on such a solid foundation with highly impressive visual flair, combining fast-paced adrenaline-fueled camera movement during action sequences, wonderful cinematography, and a keen sense of comedy. Both the script and direction consistently represent Han-gyoo and Ji-won as men with similar ideals, with ideological differences that do arise more generational than cultural.

The character development and relationship between Ji-won and Han-gyoo is where Secret Reunion shines. Han-gyoo’s arrogant and ambitious traits as an NIS agent are similar to Ji-won’s single-minded determination in assassinating a defector; yet when both protagonists are stripped of their roles they find common ground through notions of family and compassion. Divorced Han-gyoo psychologically and financially copes with the departure of his family by locating and reunifying runaway foreign wives with their Korean husbands, despite the brutality with which they were treated. While such a narrative thread conveys Han-gyoo’s torment over losing his family, it also explores an increasing problem in Korean society as men from the countryside marry – often through brokers – Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino and women from other developing countries, often abusing them upon arrival. As such, Secret Reunion conveys that focusing on older concerns of North/South relations overshadows more pressing current social and humanitarian issues, also expressed through the old age of Northern terrorist Shadow in comparison to the young women forced to flee. Ji-won exemplifies such a stance as his communist ideology is portrayed not so much as archaic nationalistic fervour but as equal rights for all, coping with the loss of his family by respecting the women he tracks down as he would his own wife.

Ji-won and Han-gyoo accidently meet several years later

Ji-won and Han-gyoo accidently meet several years later

In their roles as Han-gyoo and Ji-won, actors Song Kang-ho and Kang Dong-won prove why they are among the top talent in the industry. Both perform their roles highly convincingly and are compelling throughout. The range of genres within Secret Reunion also allows the actors to stretch their performances in different territories, from the tense action sequences to their comedic living arrangements, from sharing personal history to violent confrontations. The chemistry between them is a joy to watch, with the generational difference between them also conveying a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ of sorts from one talent to the other.

If there is criticism to be bestowed upon the film, it would be that there are not enough scenes that heighten the tension between them and dramatic moments in which personal history is expressed. The co-habitation between Han-gyoo and Ji-won is wonderfully comedic and conveys their brotherly similarities, yet opportunities are missed in which tension and paranoia could be embellished, as well as subtle mannerisms or anecdotes conveying the character’s philosophy and experiences to unite them closer. As such their business and living arrangements are enjoyable yet lose the immediacy of scenes prior.

In order to steal secrets, Han-gyoo and Ji-won co-habit

In order to steal secrets, Han-gyoo and Ji-won co-habit

Verdict:

Secret Reunion is an engaging and compelling film about the unspoken kinship between people of North and South Korea. With the highly competent script by Jang Min-seok, wonderful cast and the visual flair of director Jang Hoon, the film features an array of genres including suspense-filled action and comedic domestic sequences, as well as providing interesting social discourses regarding the abuse suffered by foreign wives. While additional scenes expressing further depth to the relationship between Han-gyoo and Ji-won would have been welcomed, Secret Reunion is incredibly enjoyable and adds a unique perspective on the bond shared between the people of the divided peninsula.

★★★★☆

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