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I always knew that feelings of love would fade - just like old photographs. But for you... you will always remain in my heart, as you are in my last moment. Thank you, and goodbye.
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A film about death that is an experience of the utmost joy
A photographer in the small city of Gunsan in South Korea learns that he has a terminal illness but downplays the seriousness of it to his family and friends. We never find out the nature of the disease but the main focus of Hur Jin-ho's poignant first film Christmas in August is not his illness. It is the grace in which he conducts his life - his ability to accept what life has in store without remorse. Sadly, it was the final film shot by cinematographer Yoo Young-kil before his death, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
The photographer, Jung-won, is played by Han Suk-kyu, at one time, Korea's most popular star. A handsome man in his early thirties with an infectious laugh, he is so warm and full of vitality that it is difficult to picture him as nearing the end of life. Jung-won owns a small photography shop and lives at home with his hard of hearing father (Goo Shin) and sister (Oh Ji-hye), teaching his dad how to play movies on the VCR, and writing instructions for him to take over his shop if he were to die. As Jung-won goes about the day-to-day business of getting his affairs in order, Dar-im (Shim Eun-ha), a meter reader, comes into his store with an urgent request for some photographic enlargements.
Abrupt and impatient, he treats her with disdain but later apologizes and she becomes a regular customer. Without overt expression of romantic feelings, their relationship develops a growing intimacy. Love is not something they say or do. It is their ground of being, the place where they come from. To protect Dar-im from suffering, Jung-won does not tell her that he has only a short time to live but this does not make the situation any easier for her. Inevitably his increasing absence from the shop causes her to feel betrayed and frustrated to the point where she throws a rock through the shop's window. Although Jung-won's decision to withhold his illness from Dar-im is open to question, it feels organic to his character in the film and is not used simply as a plot device or an excuse for the character to "live life to the fullest" by playing around.
One of the most touching sequences in the film is when an elderly woman returns to his studio to take a memorial photo of herself. Jung-won makes sure the picture is an exact likeness, knowing that soon he will be taking his own picture of remembrance. Christmas in August is an unpretentious film that never resorts to melodrama to make its point. It is about taking pleasure in ordinary moments: riding a bike, sharing a joke, eating ice cream, being thoughtful and considerate, and feeling good about what life has to offer. It is a love story where love means having to say you're sorry. Although there have been many films on the dying process, Christmas in August propels the genre in a new direction and, in the process, offers an unforgettable commentary on the human condition. Incongruously, this film about death is an experience of the utmost joy.
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