Always (O-jik geu-dae-man)
Korean (2011) Dir. Song Il-gon
It’s been said by those who know that you can find love when you least expect it or are not specifically looking for it – that is if you can see it coming. Not everybody has that specific ability however but that won’t stop love from finding them – or heartbreak…
Former boxer Jang Cheol-min (So Ji-sub) has distanced himself from his old life and now has two mundane part time jobs, delivering water cooler bottles during the day and parking lot attendant at night. During his shift one night, a young woman, Ha Jung-hwa (Han Hyo-joo) enters the booth with some food and sits down next to Cheol-min to watch a TV drama.
Cheol-min realises that Jung-hwa is blind and has mistaken him for his predecessor but invites her back anyway. They start a platonic friendship which becomes serious, both benefiting from each other’s company and finding new directions in their lives. Cheol-min returns to boxing to look after Jung-hwa when is she if forced to quit her job but when the chance to fix Jung-hwa’s eyesight comes up, Cheol-min gets involved in a dodgy, high paying MMA fight to fund it.
Romantic dramas involving combat sports are a rarity it has to be said, but if anyone is going to mix slushy love affairs with violence, it will be the South Koreans – or Japan’s Takashi Miike. Okay, that might be overselling Always for those not keen on weepy melodrama, but despite the typically fluffy sounding premise and a slavish adherence to many genre conventions, this is a film riddled with dark and decidedly bleak moments.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as director Song Il-gon did give us the gruesome Spider Forest and old habits do die hard for some people, but in this instance it doesn’t comes across as Song deliberately trying to subvert the genre to suit his own agenda. That said, he does take the story to new levels of tragedy that have the viewer on edge in the same way they would if this was a Mills & Boon type tale, but gets there via some pretty gnarly side streets.
As part of the slow build, the key theme is about perception. With his mess of hair and laconic mien, Cheol-min doesn’t give off any former boxer vibes so neither the audience of Jung-hwa has any reason to suspect his slacker appearance has a troubled backstory to it. His slow reaction to Jung-hwa’s unexpected arrival is more due to befuddlement than deception, unsure as to why this pretty, young woman would treat him with such familiarity but is too polite to correct her.
Of course, Cheol-min is unaware of Jung-hwa’s impairment so when the penny does drop there is a moment of awkwardness which Cheol-min is quick to brush under the carpet and this becomes a regular activity for the pair. Jung-hwa works as a call desk operator, with a bespoke keyboard to help with her computer skills, but she also has to avoid the advances of her sleazy boss.
The inevitable happens to conclude this part of the story, but not after a falling out when Cheol-min refuses to open up but his past and gets a bit shirty when Jung-hwa presses him on it. After exhibiting his violent side with the boss, Cheol-min confesses all – after his boxing career, he ended up working as a debt collector but was arrested when one collection went horribly wrong.
Bad boys being reformed by good girls is a staple of the romance movie, and Song is not afraid to play up to this to keep the story moving, but the concept of perception remains integral to the dynamic of the central relationship. And this extends to the audience, as we know a lot more than Jung-hwa does about Cheol-min whilst Song has a few tricks up his sleeve and delivers some brutal swerves that even the cynics will be moved by.
Under any other circumstances this tonal shift would be disastrous but Song is clever to set the early meetings at night, so with darkness a regular visual feature, the mood or content getting darker fits in naturally between the soft focus schmaltz of the burgeoning romance. And it surprisingly doesn’t feel too gratuitous, the cage fight notwithstanding, and has a purpose in driving the story forward.
Song is intent there will not be a dry eye in the house by the time the end credits role, so he has loaded the script with plenty of misery and obstacles to impede the path to happiness for our unlikely protagonists. And it works. Not everyone will be onboard with this, but sometimes, like sci-fi or fantasy, letting yourself go with the flow is the best approach – the less you try to analyse its every component, the more it becomes something you can actually enjoy.
Helping make this work so well are the two leads, creating the believable and sweet chemistry needed to get the audience engaged in their journey. Both have tough roles to play – So Ji-sub has to be both tough and tender as Cheol-min, somewhere between matinee idol and bruiser, whilst Han Hyo-joo is required to be the sweetest rose as Jung-hwa but no wilting lily either. Han being adorably pretty helps, whilst being an emotive performer ensure she is convincingly blind.
If we were to dissect the idea of a film concurrently running two opposite elements like violence and romance within the one arena, the conclusion would be that the clash would be too detrimental to work. Song addresses this by directing each one as he would in their own individual diegesis, whilst building to them gradually via natural ebbs and flows within the story, so neither feels incongruous or stark in juxtaposition.
Always could have succeeded if Song stuck to just one genre but somehow brings two distinctly contrasting styles together to hit hard with an emotional drama that is also joyously charming.