Lucky Chan-sil is a delicate, deeply humanist film superbly anchored by Kang’s lead performance.
“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” the saying goes. Tell that to Lee Chan-sil, the protagonist of Kim Cho-hee’s debut film, Lucky Chan-Sil. Kang Mal-geum stars as a middle-aged movie producer, single and childless, who has dedicated her life to making films with the well-known auteur Director Ji. Unfortunately, he dies within the film’s first two minutes. This opening scene — raucous drinking games, a table littered with bottles, impending disaster — recalls the pitched dinner-table frenzies of Hong Sang-soo, the prolific Korean director whose characters frequently hash it out over vats of soju. And Kim, in fact, has produced numerous Hong films. But Chan-sil is an altogether gentler, quieter archetype than the hysterical depictions of middle-aged women we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on film. She is thoughtful and perceptive, vulnerable and empathetic. Most importantly, she is momentarily adrift but not necessarily lost. With her life as she knew it suddenly yanked out from under her, she moves to a small town nestled in the mountains and makes money by cleaning the house of her friend Sophie (Yoon Seung-ah). By chance, she meets an aspiring short film director, Young (Bae Yu-ram), who moonlights as Sophie’s French teacher.
No one around her seems to understand what it means to be a movie producer, and Chan-sil repeatedly finds herself unable to give a proper explanation. Without the director present to validate her worth, her entire existence seems to have evaporated; even her father confesses that he never cared for Ji’s films. Instead, she focuses on the smaller, more mundane production of everyday life: helping her elderly landlady (Youn Yuh-jung) learn to read and write, admiring a sunset on the way home, caring for Sophie with tough love and motherly affection. Lest the film come across a little too rote, Kim adds the unexpected presence of a ghost: specifically, one claiming to be Hong Kong action star Leslie Cheung (Kim Young-min), whose films Chan-sil loved in her youth.
And there is, always, the solace of movies. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, Kim pokes fun at the persistent tension between art house films and mass-market blockbusters by casting Chan-sil as an impassioned Ozu fan whose opinion of Young is visibly shaken after hearing he prefers Christopher Nolan. But Kim, who wrote the script, is also interested in deeper questions. How much of ourselves must we sacrifice for the things we love? Is it ever too late to shake off our doubts and live the life we’ve imagined for ourselves? Chan-sil, who gave her whole life to movies and is now the subject of gossip and condescension from former industry peers, questions whether it was worth it. Through Chan-sil and Young’s tentative friendship, we see a woman pushing against the boundaries of her life and deciding which to maintain, adjust, discard altogether. This is a slow process of reassessment, not a dramatic reinvention. It’s awkward and clumsy and realistic, entirely anchored by Kang’s performance.
The film ends with Leslie in the great movie theater in the sky, clapping for a second before turning away from the screen, the footage behind him spooling onwards. Our passions will always be there, Kim seems to say. What’s more important is life — the people, the relationships, the messiness and uncertainty and joy. Meanwhile, while walking with her friends in the dark, Chan-sil, holding a flashlight, urges them ahead. “Go on, I’ll light the way,” she says. In a sense, she already has; she’s cooked meals for Young, cleaned Sophie’s house on her hands and knees, and hunched over schoolbooks with her landlady. Now, it’s time to turn that light toward herself and finally illuminate what was there all along.
You can currently stream Kim Cho-hee’s Lucky Chan-sil on Mubi.