On October 4th, 2018, the 23rd edition of Busan International Film Festival opened its doors with numerous stars in attendance, marking the return of the festival in its full glory after several tumultuous years.
The festival selected its opening film carefully – Beautiful Days (뷰티풀데이즈), the world premiere of the film directed by the Busan native, Yun Jéro. Unlike its title, there is but little beauty to be found in Beautiful Days; it deals with the sensitive topic of North Korean defectors in China, where traffickers and constant fear rule their everyday – a topic Yun Jéro has been focusing on since 2011. He notably addressed it in his award-winning documentary Mrs. B, A North Korean Woman (2016), and it was during this project that Yun met a Korean-Chinese woman who had not met her son for nine years. He sought out her son in China and the experience resulted in the screenplay for Beautiful Days.
Knowing the topic of the film, the first shot takes us by surprise. With neon lights flashing in blue and red, a woman in a blonde wig seems to be senselessly partying. Before we understand exactly what we are looking at, we find ourselves in what we expected to see in the first place – a small room, where the light can only be turned on by screwing on the light bulb; a simple bedroom where a father and son have trouble finding their sleep. After waking up completely, the father (Oh Kwang-rok) shows his son Zhenchen (Jang Dong-yoon) an old photo with an address at the back. No explanation is necessary, as Zhenchen’s reaction immediately lets us know that the address will lead to his absent mother.
Whatever Zhenchen expects to find is not what is actually waiting for him when he locates his mother in Seoul. His mother (Lee Na-young) is working as a bar hostess, and as he follows her home, we can see how he has trouble understanding why she left him and his father, in order to lead a life that seems to be less than desirable. After finally confronting her, she offers no explanation or apology; but she does let him stay at her place, and in the morning makes him a breakfast that he, projecting the accumulated hurt, promptly rejects. What follows later in the day is a violent outburst that is part suppressed anger and part desire to save his mother from what Zhenchen sees as a terrible situation. After committing an assault, Zhenchen runs to his mother’s arms, but their interaction remains troubled, with moments of intimacy that show glimpses of their mother-son bond, even though an unspeakable wall never entirely disappears.
As Zhenchen is set to return to China, his mother slips a journal into his bag – but not before removing a page from the beginning. As he finds the journal, the flashbacks begin to unveil a story that began in 2003, explaining just why she left her husband and child. As the truth unveils, the painful events of the past, echoing the terrible reality for many people at the North Korean/Chinese border, come in waves, beating at the viewers’ senses. The story becomes increasingly more and more tangled, until the final, terrible reveal, which Zhenchen finds on the missing page of his mother’s journal, passed on to him by his father in a letter he wrote before passing away.
Lee Na-young does a great job as the haunted North Korean defector who has led a difficult life, and the rest of the cast members do a great job as well – Jang Dongyoon especially gave a nuanced performance as Zhenchen. Given that this is his debut feature, Yun Jéro did better than one would expect; there are only two flaws that take away from the overall experience of Beautiful Days. The emotional charge sometimes feels too intentional, and could have been toned down a little bit – given the seriousness of the topic and that the story is based on real events, the movie would have packed enough of a punch even without the continuous sense of dread that permeates the film. This is in part due to the second, largest flaw of the film – its music score and sound editing. The music itself feels dissonant from the action most of the time and is sometimes too subtle, and at other times too much at the forefront. Ultimately, the film could do with a bit of polish, but is – especially story-wise – worth a watch.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Contents Panda