An Unconventional Romance, Quietly Told
There’s a soothing rhythm as the story of Josée unfolds in this unlikely South Korean romance. Focused on human frailty and persistence, it’s lovely to watch as the characters evolve and discover.
The narrative takes flight with a woman weighed down by a miserable past and exhausting present. She creates an acceptable existence, shielding herself from pity, connections and supplementary pain. Her view of the world is through discarded books and a hole in a concrete wall. Living off what others discard and afraid to use government programs, she’s amazingly self-taught and a runaway from age 10. Everyone is a ‘kid’ in her eyes and she a wise sage – after all, she’s been through it.
As a new acquaintance, Young-Seok slowly creeps into her reality, volunteering unbidden assistance. From the very first scene, it seems like Josée has already given up. She’s fallen out of her damaged wheelchair and lies unmoving, neither seeking aid nor trying to help herself. When he appears, it’s as a passer-by performing a good deed.
Young-Seok, a college student, takes what he’s presented in life while not really striving or taking an interest in much, including his future. Josée, a whole different kettle of fish, is beguiling – enough to keep him turning up but not quite enough to make a move. For the most part, he responds when she asks, just as with all his other associations. He’s not seeking but if someone’s offering…
Such as with his mentor, Professor Choi who talks a good game of recommendations but ultimately has a reputation for taking advantage of students. And Professor Min, who has an affair with Young-Seok, then tosses him out when her boyfriend arrives, safeguarding the best of both worlds. Viewed through Young-Seok’s lens, there’s a parallel that makes his affiliation with Josée feel quite naïve and hopeful by comparison, despite the obstacles.
The fact that Josée is disabled hardly matters – it’s more a visual device to make a point. From a fragility perspective, she’s much more trapped by her past and her own thinking than by a hand-me-down wheelchair or a life of poverty. If she were to become courageous – more vulnerable – what could that bring to her life? A universal question – one she gradually begins to explore.
Josée is played by Han Ji-Min, recognisable from a bevy of works including the relatable Lee Jung-In, dating a single Dad in drama One Spring Night (Netflix). As Josée, her credible deadpan delivery exhibits a woman who claims to have seen it all but whose rich fantasy life (while protective) gets in the way of what could be, guttering as often as her wheels.
Also appearing in Radiant (Viki) alongside Han, Nam Joo-Hyuk as Young-Seok plays a role that’s a far cry from his previous college student persona in dramas Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo (Netflix, Amazon) or Cheese in the Trap (Netflix, Viki). Young-Seok is starker and more tangible – you know him. He may not be a self-starter but is kind enough to help someone in need, someone as prickly as Josée.
Based on a 1985 short story by award-winning Japanese author Seiko Tanabe, Josée, the Tiger and the Fish, and having been made into a 2003 Japanese film, this narrative seems to be well known in South East Asia. Recently remade into an anime movie (2020), a quick peek at the trailer confirms that version is focused on chasing dreams while this grittier interpretation is levelled at relationships, translating the concept into flesh and blood.
Director Kim Jong-Kwan, a self-proclaimed fan of the original, is known for inventive shorts and full-length features such as Worst Woman and The Table. As Josée is a voracious reader, he leans into the novels of Françoise Sagan, known for romantic themes involving disillusioned characters, building a seamless path.
Is it pity or curiosity that sucks Young-Seok into her world? Admiration or intrigue that keeps him coming back? Filled with compassion and the conundrums of real folks – getting a job, finding a partner and choosing how and when to be a good person. The pacing, the music, the matter-of-factness all lull us into the illusion.
At some point, you realize that one can’t necessarily believe all that Josée says – and she’s the owner of this tale. As it evolves, I began to question so many things. Where’s the line between reality and her magical creation? And worse – way worse – what could life be like if she were a little more honest – with others and herself?
As she progressively becomes braver, she starts reaching beyond her cluttered little room. Young-Seok’s nearly silent, unfazed support is priceless.
*Watch Josée on Viki from March.