In Im Sang-soo’s Heaven: To the Land of Happiness, the money its pair of protagonists happen upon, no matter how welcome, has a rapidly depreciating value: Choi Min-sik’s character, identified only as Prisoner 203, five years into a sentence, has been given two weeks to live (the movie, in the end, grants him three days). “Every minute counts for me,” he tells his break-out partner Nam-sik (Park Hae-il), an orderly who is coincidentally a target of arrest at the exact same time in the exact same hospital due to his being caught on the facility’s newly upgraded security cameras, after months of routine success, pocketing SSRIs he needs but can’t afford. They escape in a hearse, naturally, which also happens to be the container for the cash: a mob-connected coffin is filled to the brim with high-denomination won notes.
What will they spend it on? Where will they go? Im, an oddly dedicated hack, writes all his own material, in this case transforming the premise of Thomas Jahn and Til Schweiger’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, the same film that inspired Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List, to the point where no credit to the source material was any longer required. And he regards the money with indifference. The same goes for Nam-sik’s “happiness,” which one might imagine would be occasioned by the title. Most of the film resembles an average network TV episode: long conversations in a blue-screened car interior, followed by brief bursts of perfunctory action. (The action mostly involves a change of vehicle, as the two transfer from the hearse to a produce-carrying flatbed, followed by a tractor and finally a scooter, from which Park delivers the film’s in medias res opening monologue, an unironic variation on, “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got into this situation…”)
Im’s treatment of this material suggests a director trying to manage an apparent decline: at home in the lofty, manicured world of his Cannes debut The Housemaid, an ill-advised remake that, like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, awkwardly paid tribute to Kim Ki-young’s totalizing iconoclasm, in Heaven, with little prestige left to his name after that earlier film’s sequel, The Taste of Money, crashed and burned, he defaults to coverage and clock-in-clock-out anonymity.
When his protagonists find themselves in possession of that cool $2 million, they pocket it and make no plans for it. It’s as if they are unsatisfied: it’s not enough, or at least there’s no desire to measure up to the implications of the scenario. Given the chance to make a getaway with this windfall, they elect instead to conspicuously go home and face death while also facing the Pacific. This doesn’t come across as a rejection of financial allure or a wandering existentialism, but something closer to the inconclusive hyperactivity of a mid-life crisis.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2022 — Dispatch 5.