Be With You (Jigeum Mannareo Gabmida)

Korea (2018) Dir. Lee Jang-Hoon

When we make promises, we try to keep them in the realms of achievability especially when they are made to the young. Childish innocence however is a robust and dogmatic form of faith that will not be hindered in expecting one’s word to be honoured, a key theme of this Korean remake of a popular Japanese film, itself based on a novel.

Ji-Ho (Kim Ji-Hwan) is the young son of Woon-Jin (So Ji-Sub), a widower following the death of his wife Soo-A (Son Ye-Jin). Before she departed Soo-A left a fantasy storybook for her son telling of a penguin up in Cloudland who would watch over her baby son from above, until rain season meant she could visit her son via the Teardrop train, by way of promising to return to see Ji-Ho.

Believing in this parable, Ji-Ho anxiously waits for rainy season, collecting any four-leaf clovers so his mother will return as promised. When the rain does come Ji-Ho and Woon-Jin visit a deserted train tunnel where they find an unconscious woman looking exactly the same as Soo-A, but with no memories of who she is or who Ji-Ho and Woon-Jin are. Soo-A starts her life with them all over again, but time may not be on their side.

I’ve not seen the 2004 Japanese original nor have I read Takuji Ichikawa’s novel Ima, Ai ni Yukimasui so I have nothing to compare this to, leaving me to judge this version of Be With You on its own merits. Actor turned first time director Lee Jang-Hoon and co-script writer Kang Soo-jine have made the translocation from Japan to Korea a smooth one in that it feels like a natural Korean drama and not an ill-fitting clash of cultures.

The central premise is a fanciful one, lending itself to the soppy Christmas dramas US TV is so fond of making with the seasonal stipulation of the annual downpour easily adapted for the snowy climate associated with the festive period. Not to mention the religious origins of this celebration revolves around a fabled miracle birth so why not a miracle resurrection?

Lee Jang-Hoon opens his film with Ji-Ho reading the storybook of the deceased mother penguin narrated by Soo-A immediately establishing the pervasive fantasy element of the story. But this is only a small part of the mountains that need to be climbed in ensuring young Ji-Ho has a happy life. There is no question Woon-Jin is a devoted father, up early to clean the swimming pool he works at, returning home to get Ji-Ho ready for school then back to the pool, but he might be around forever either.

Woon-Jin doesn’t have a terminal illness but he does have a mystery condition where his hormones go mad whenever he exerts himself causing fainting spells, which saw his promising swimming career come to a screeching halt. Luckily, Woon-Jin’s oldest friend, bakery owner Hong-Goo (Ko Chang-Seok) is on hand to keep Ji-Ho busy in his absence, perhaps even foreshadowing his role as proxy male influence in temporarily substituting for Woon-Jin at a school father and son race.

Hong-Goo is the loveable chubby sidekick character every lead in a romantic drama has but never gets to have his moment in the spotlight, although Hang-Goo is never jealous of Woon-Jin. Whilst he does seem to have a romantic subplot of his own brewing with a mysterious lady customer and does have a funny scene dressed as penguin, Hang-Goo is pretty much the ballast for the two male leads.

Similarly, there is another teased subplot that goes absolutely nowhere with Woon-Jin failing to notice his seemingly smitten cute co-worker Hyun-Jung (Son Yeo-Eun), who in turn has to fend off the advances of vain swimming instructor Choi (Lee Joon-Hyuk), another purely comedic figure. With no discernible future between Woon-Jin and Hyun-Jung, this filler could have been excised to bring the 131 minute run time down.

For Soo-A, there doesn’t appear to be any other explanation or counter evidence that she is someone else so she reluctantly return home with Woon-Jin and Ji-Ho to be re-educated on her life thus far and resume the role of wife and mother. Don’t worry, she’s not taken advantage of, and the process is gradual, with both of her boys doing most of the heavy lifting while Soo-A gets her bearings.

This last aspect is a nicely progressive bit of writing and most likely more indicative of the story’s Japanese origins with Korea’s patriarchal society so notoriously stringent that a lesser man would expect Soo-A to play Mary Poppins as soon as she walks through the door. Woon-Jin might not be able to cook the perfect breakfast and he can’t button his shirt up properly but he is earnest and always puts Ji-Ho and other people first.

You might be expecting a big plot twist or reveal and you’d be right but it comes from an unexpected direction, playing into the flashback recounting of how Woon-Jin and Soo-A became a couple, part of Soo-A reacquainting herself with her forgotten past. No matter how cynical one might be towards sentimental fluff, there is no question this is some fabulous bait and switch in execution, if conceptually in need of a large pinch of salt.

Aside from the slightly padded script, Lee shows no overt signs of rookie impetuosity or over indulgence in his direction, and being an actor himself, he uses this experience to coax warm, affecting performances from his cast without reducing them to saccharine totems. So Ji-Sub is understated as Woon-Jin and Son Ye-Jin has a lot of scope to make Soo-A fascinating to watch, but the real star is young Kim Ji-Hwan as Ji-Ho.

I am rather keen to see the Japanese original of Be With You to see what the difference and similarities may be, but for now, this Korean take on Ichikawa’s novel is a touching and delightful slice of whimsy about the power of and belief in the promise.