Festival (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): He cannot afford to be sad…

South Korean independent drama “Festival” mainly revolves around one impossible situation which pressures its plain young hero a lot. While we are occasionally amused by how things keep going wrong for him, we also come to sense more of how desperate and devastated he really is, and the movie does a fairly good job of balancing itself between absurd black humor and sincere melodrama.

At the beginning, the movie lets us get to know the difficult daily life of Kyeong-man (Ha Joon), who has earned his meager living via working as a cheap master of ceremony. Because he has to pay for the expensive hospital fee for his ailing father, he is willing to do any job offered to him, and he does not even hesitate to work in front of a small supermarket on its bargain sale day.

We later see Kyeong-man coming to the hospital where his father has stayed since he became very ill. Shortly after sleeping right next to his father for a while, he is awakened by his father, who cannot speak or move that well to his illness but clearly appreciates how much his son cares about his welfare. When he happens to have another job to do, Kyeong-man calls his younger sister Kyeong-mi (So Ju-yeon), and Kyeong-mi is certainly willing to spend some time with their father, though she comes a bit too late to Kyeong-man’s annoyance.

Not long after he leaves the hospital, Kyeong-man receives an urgent call from her sister, who is quite shocked and devastated due to their father’s sudden death. He immediately goes back to the hospital, and he and his sister subsequently prepare for their father’s funeral and condolers to come, but then he faces a certain hard fact about funeral. He and his sister should pay a considerable amount of money for their father’s funeral, but they do not have much money at present. They may have to depend only on the generosity of those condolers who will probably give them some money as a part of the custom, but it is apparent that not many people will come to the funeral, and there is a cringe-inducing scene where one of their relatives comes to show condolence as required and then reminds Kyeong-man that Kyeong-man needs to pay off his dead father’s debt as soon as possible.

While Kyeong-man is agonizing over how he can possibly deal with this difficult circumstance, there comes an accidental job offer which may solve it. One of his colleagues cannot suddenly work at a big birthday party to be held in some country village, so he asks Kyeong-man to go there instead of him, and Kyeong-man promptly accepts this job because he is promised that he will be paid handsomely for that. When he subsequently leaves the funeral, he does not tell his sister about where he will actually go, and Kyeong-mi has to deal with their condolers alone for herself.

When Kyeong-man arrives at that country village in question, his car unfortunately comes to have some mechanical problem, and that is just the beginning of a series of small and big problems which will exasperate him a lot. At one point, he is asked by his client to try a bit more for making his client’s aging mother smile, and he shows no objection just because he is told that he will get extra money for that, but, of course, that turns out to be harder than expected because he keeps being cheery on the surface while struggling to suppress his growing grief behind his back. In addition, he inadvertently got himself stuck in a rather messy circumstance, and he becomes more exasperated as her sister keeps calling him for asking him where the hell he is.

Even though he can simply solve his problem via saying a few words on that, Kyeong-min still does not tell anyone on his increasingly difficult status. This is also quite frustrating to us, but the screenplay by Kim Rok-kyung steadily accumulates its dramatic tension along with that, and we keep watching Kyeong-man’s plight as the story eventually reaches to his expected breaking point.

In the meantime, the story also pays some attention to how things are also hard and difficult for Kyeong-mi, who comes to have a fair share of emotional difficulties as having to take care of the funeral and those condolers without her older brother at her side. In case of a trio of female relatives, they are rather hypocritical in their superficial condolence, and they are also pretty insensitive as bluntly talking about Kyeong-man’s current absence right in front of Kyeong-mi. As a guy who has been to a number of funerals, I am familiar with such people like them, and I remember well how I had to suppress myself while talking with such people at funerals.

The movie depends a lot on its two lead performers, who did a commendable job of conveying to us their characters’ grief, confusion, and frustration. While Ha Joon is convincing in the depiction of accumulating emotional conflicts inside his character, So Ju-yeon ably handles her several key scenes as maintaining her character’s phlegmatically passive façade, and several other main cast members including Oh Chi-woon and Jung In-gi are well-cast in their small supporting roles.

On the whole, “Festival” is more or less than the longer version of a short film, but it handles its story and characters more competently than I expected when I saw its theatrical theater several months ago. Sure, the finale is surely melodramatic to say the least, but the movie earns its tears via genuine emotional moments, and you may find yourself wishing for better days for Kyeong-man and Kyeong-mi.

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