In a particular scene in Garden of Heaven
, one of the main characters leaves behind a goodbye note for the other central character, but when it’s unfolded, it turns out to be blank. This scene is repeated, with the giver-and-receiver reversed, later in the film. This delightful turning-on-its-head of the “letter of goodbye” romance trope is unfortunately the only clever note struck in an otherwise standard, paint-by-numbers film.
Garden of Heaven
, a Korean romance/tearjerker released in 2003, is the story of two lonely people coming together in the face of tragedy. When his father passes away, reserved doctor Choi Oh-sung (Ahn Jae-wook) is left alone in the world, his mother having died when he was a child. His father leaves Oh-sung in charge of the hospital he built, The Garden of Heaven, a position Oh-sung is reluctant to take up. Make-up artist Kim Young-ju (Lee Eun-joo), meanwhile, unable to make a living, turns to bar hostessing to get by. Oh-sung, meeting Young-ju at the bar one day, does a small service for her, and Young-ju, starved for any measure of human connection or affection, promptly attaches herself to him. She informs him that she's dying of cancer and drags him to her favorite spot in the city. Oh-sung, reluctantly intrigued by her forthright ways, allows himself to be drawn into her life…and thus begins a love story.
Garden of Heaven
, like many Korean romance films, has some rather lovely cinematography (one particularly exquisite shot of Choi Oh-sung looking up at the sky, his face crisscrossed with the tangled branches of a tree, is memorable). The direction on the whole however is uninspired, with forgettable music and staid settings mostly consisting of hospitals, hotels, and apartments.
Ahn Jae-wook (known for his 1997 drama Star in My Heart
as well as various film roles) as Choi Oh-sung gives a good performance as a doctor who maintains sanity only by keeping up a wall of distance between himself and his dying patients. His breakdown and abrupt surrender to love make up some of the more compelling scenes in a film which otherwise hits emotional notes mostly at random. As an overall character, Oh-sung is rather thinly sketched however – he became a doctor because of his father, and has a love/hate relationship with the profession as a result, but this interesting back-story is never really developed or explored. His ambivalence toward his profession is disappointingly wrapped up in a neat little bow - along with the romance - by the end of the film.
Lee Eun-joo (a very popular actress prior to her suicide in 2005) as Kim Young-ju is equally good, possessed of a luminous fragility highly reminiscent of Lee Yeon Hee in A Millionaire’s First Lov
e. Ethereal beauty isn’t of much use however when her character and dialogue contain all the trite clichés ever written about a dying person, and Eun-joo struggles in vain against the entire lack of imagination with which her character is portrayed. Young-ju is brave, laughs about her fate, breaks down at all the predictable moments, moans that she wishes she could “ just eat and live like other people?”, falls in love and is sad because of it - is, in fact, a living stereotype. The misery of a dying character is a difficult thing to write well - it must walk the fine line between self-pity and genuine, sympathy-inducing sorrow, and Garden of Heaven
skews too near the former sometimes in its portrayal of Young-ju's character. She ultimately pulls through to a shining peace that inspires Oh-sung as well as her fellow patients - but it's too late to inspire us, who have by this time grown indifferent to her.
Where the romantic storyline could have made up for the illness storyline, it is plagued with the same lack of subtlety that is Garden of Heave
n’s biggest problem in general. In their first meeting, Young-ju asks Oh-sung with sudden intensity if he will love her – and at once I know exactly
how the rest of the scene will play out, because I’ve seen this scene in at least two other Korean films/dramas. The lead actors do the best they can with their roles, bringing charm and romantic tension miraculously to the screen, but they can do little more than keep the film afloat in the murky waters of its mediocrity. She pursues him, he’s drawn to her but holds back because she’s dying, she retreats just when he’s begun to fall for her, he realizes how very much he loves her and is in pain because he can’t help her even as a doctor…we’ve all seen this before from many other romantic tragedies that have come out of Korea over the years.
Some oddly uncomfortable realities also thread their way through the romance.There’s an undercurrent of emotional manipulation in Young-ju’s determined initial pursuit of Oh-sung in the first part of film –he knows that she’s dying, and is more reluctant to refuse her or be rude to her, and she takes advantage of this. And as the film goes on, Young-ju’s feelings for Oh-sung, which come across at first as the understandable need of a lonely person for someone to love her, come across sometimes as selfish, the thoughtless desire of a dying woman for a man fall in love with her. These undercut the validity of the relationship.
Korean tearjerkers can be like Nicholas Sparks novels – endless repetitions of the same theme. At their best, however, they are beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and written with a nuance that lifts a standard plot into magic (see: A Millionaire’s First Lov
e). Garden of Heaven
is not one of these. Go watch A Moment to Remembe
r or A Millionaire’s First Love
instead, both of which are vastly superior in every way.