Over the years, Korea has risen as a filmmaking nation to rival both China and Japan, two countries firmly established in the arena of world cinema. In 1988 two things happened which can be directly linked to the current boon in quality Korean, specifically South Korean, films. The first was the repeal of several censorship laws which greatly limited Korean filmmakers from tackling certain subjects or expressing controversial opinions. The second almost caused the collapse of the South Korean film industry. In addition to loosening up on the censorship, the government also lifted restrictions on the import of foreign films, thereby flooding the market with titles from the U.S., China and abroad, forcing Korean filmmakers to do something they had never done in the past… compete. The only reason the Korean film industry was able to stay salient during this time was a quota system that had been put in place that each theater must play a certain number of Korean films in addition to the imports.
The Korean film industry grew up a lot in the 10 years following these events and Korean films now easily compete with foreign flicks, both in their native country and abroad. Jin-ho Hur's Christmas in August (1998) did a lot to help promote the changing nature of Korean film around the world with its extremely popular showing at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as winning awards at festivals in Belgium and Canada. This charming, sophisticated drama about life, love and loss, along with the successful comedy The Quiet Family, really whet international audience's appetites for what Korean filmmaker's were now capable of and set the stage for such terrific films as Shiri, Tell Me Something, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area, and A Tale Of Two Sisters, just to name a few.
Jung-won (played by Korean leading man, Suk-kyu Han, who also starred in Shiri) owns a small photo studio and is your average thirty-something, except that he's also terminally ill. We're never told the name of his malady and, with the exception of him spending some time in the hospital during the film, are given very few details about its nature. Suffice it to say that he's dying and we're watching him live out his last days. He still works, likes to spend time with his friends and enjoys the company of his family. He's an average man, content that the time he's spent in this world has been spent well. That is until Da-rim (Eun-ha Shim) a new meter-maid just assigned to his neighborhood, begins to come in to have film developed. Apparently, Korean meter maids get proof of infractions they write tickets for. Oh, if only that were the case here in the States, but I digress.
For some, not knowing the source of Jung-won's illness will be a source of consternation, but I think that these people are missing the point. Each and every one of us has a limited time on this planet, some less than others, but I think that the point the film is trying to make is that we should all live our lives to the fullest each and every day, appreciate our friends and family and try not to do anything we might regret, because whether a terminal illness, old age or even a wayward bus take us in the end, we'll have wanted to insure that we lived a life to be proud of. As Jung-won's unexpected romance with Da-rim begins to blossom, he immediately feels guilt because he cannot bear to put her through the grief of his passing, a passing that he has already come to accept. However, he never tells her he's dying, which probably wasn't the best idea.
Instead, he just continues on as if nothing is wrong, only his closest friends and family knowing the truth. It's heartbreaking to watch Jung-won make the preparations for his own passing, from writing down instructions for his elderly father to operate his photo business to sitting for his own memorial picture, a self-portrait. Da-rim cannot understand when Jung-won stands her up, or disappears for long stretches of time (due to his increasingly frequent hospital stays), and feels hurt, confused and betrayed. Later, after Jung-Won's passing, she returns to the store and sees a portrait of her he had taken hanging in the window. Jung-won's father most likely found the smaller picture, enlarged it and hung it there knowing how much she meant to his son in his last days. It's not clear if Da-rim knows Jung-won's dead at the end of the film, but she does know that he loved her.
Christmas in August is a smart, thoughtful, deliberately paced film that amazingly doesn't delve too deeply into melodrama or treacle like many American films that touch on this subject matter. In fact, much like another Suk-kyu Han film, The Scarlet Letter, this film stays with you long after you watch it. I find myself, even now thinking about the way certain scenes played out and how, with very little dialogue, the actors were able to convey such strong and universal emotions so effectively. It's interesting to note that both Suk-kyu Han and Eun-ha Shim would reunite a year later for 1999's Tell Me Something, a twisted, gore-filled Basic Instinct style thriller which was the polar opposite of Christmas in August, but which also proved to be a box-office hit.
Picture: The DVD is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio and looks very good for its age. The picture isn't very bright and there is noticeable grain at times, but due to the somber nature of the film it works.
Audio: There are two audio tracks, a Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and a Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. I listened to the Korean audio track and as there is very little dialogue or music, thought it was fine.
Extras: Extras included on this Disc are a Korean commentary track by director Jin-ho Hur complete with English subtitles, a "Making-of" featurette, a music video of the film's theme song and the film's original theatrical trailer.
Conclusion: Christmas in August is easy to recommend for several reasons, the least of which is that Korea's answer to Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks all-rolled-into-one Suk-kyu Han delivers a truly moving and amazing performance throughout. Most of the Asian films I surround myself with usually contain all sorts of mind-bending action or ghastly horrors, but when faced with the all too human drama present in Christmas in August, I was genuinely touched by the sentiment. You will be too. Highly Recommended.