One of this year’s January releases, dark comedy Never Ending Story takes the normal melodrama fodder of two characters diagnosed with a terminal illness and throws it on its head, delivering high doses of cute romance with endearing characters and more sunny backlighting than you can shake a stick at. It underperformed in the box office, with star Uhm Tae-woong competing and losing against sister Uhm Jung-hwa in the popular flick Dancing Queen, though both films were unable to match the critical acclaim and popularity of Unbowed, which dominated domestic box office rankings.
I became a fan of Jung Ryeo-won in History of the Salaryman, and even with a much less explosive character here she was absolutely lovable next to her costar in a movie that delivers a surprising amount of meaningful fluff despite the grim premise. What initially drew me to Never Ending Story (besides my love of the lead actors) was the fact that Park Eun-kyo, the mind behind the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Mother, was one of the two writers behind the helm.
This film also marked director Jung Yong-joo’s debut, but you wouldn’t know it just by watching. What we get is a visual treat and an exercise in mood-affecting cinematography, one that will leave you laughing more often than not.
Never Ending Story employs some of your most basic romantic comedy tropes under the umbrella of impending death, since both of our lead characters are suffering from brain tumors and given only months left to live. Despite the inherent grimness that brings, what we actually get is a surprisingly light movie with the dark undertone always simmering below the surface and coming to the fore only when needed for the best dramatic effect.
I liked that the premise seemed so melodramatic at the outset, and that it handles the subject of death without a real agenda or big message about celebrating life or facing your expiration date with courage, etc. Instead, our characters take the bad news with a grain of salt despite their wholly different personalities, and just do – effectively hoping that we’ll understand their motivations without treating us like children. It gives the movie a refreshing pace and honest, open interactions between a couple whose time is running out.
The same light tonal quality I’m lauding also has a downfall, in that there’s a definite avoidance of delving into the dark side of the premise. I get the feeling that the filmmakers and/or writers might have been afraid to really plumb the dramatic depths of our characters’ deathly circumstances out of fear that it would be too jarring for the audience to handle after so much fluff and cuteness, which kind of makes me want to shake whoever’s responsible by the shoulders. Such a great premise and setup, but someone chickened out in the dramatic conflict department.
Thus we get a film that hooks us into our endearing leads, but really doesn’t have much in the way of plot. Despite that, the moments of fluff (and there are so many) manage to remain grounded and aww-inducing rather than becoming nothing more than a series of pretty yet unconnected vignettes.
We meet both of our characters creating introduction tapes for the same high-scale marriage agency. Our heroine, OH SONG-KYUNG (Jung Ryeo-won) has a very businesslike personality to match her serious job as a bank teller. She’s incredibly straight forward and organized to the point where she can’t go anywhere without a handheld planner – and I think it’s most telling that her friends get her a box filled with post-it notes as a birthday present.
One gets the feeling that she’s single because of her no-nonsense personality, even though she reveals herself to be outgoing, fun, and a romantic at heart through the course of the film. It’s this sort of personality quirk that makes her well-suited to hear the grim news of her impending death – and though she faces a bit of denial at first, she doesn’t let the promise of an expiration date weigh her down or change her significantly.
As she tells us in her interview, she believes strength lies in the ability to gather information (one of her strongest suits is her ability to research anything), and that arranging everything in life is key.
Next up is adorable man-child KANG DONG-JOO (Uhm Tae-woong), who works at a daycare/taekwondo/ballet academy. He’s basically a huge dork with a penchant for comic book t-shirts and Spiderman bedsheets, and aspires to one day win the lottery – which leads him to buy tickets on a regular and near-obsessive basis.
He’s got a heart of gold despite having never matured, and some of the cutest interactions come from his home life, where he lives with/leeches off of his brother (Park Ki-woong) and his sister-in-law (Yoon Yoo-sun), the latter of whom is the “adult” of the household (and that’s saying something). She’s taken up the role of mother to both brothers, and part of her charm is the fierce outer front she puts up that belies her soft underbelly – so in one breath she can wish for Dong-joo to hurry up and live on his own, only her words are always empty. They’re an adorable, dysfunctional little family.
It’s endlessly funny to me how we have two siblings who actually behave like real siblings – Dong-joo and his younger brother act incredibly alike as far as their laissez-faire attitudes, with his brother having a slight leg up probably only in part to being married to his capable wife. I just like the little touch added to their characterizations – his brother and sister-in-law don’t have names, but they seem thought-out and real, and work together to breathe life into the story.
What’s interesting about the way characters are painted in this film is that no one’s unlikable, and that everyone seems like real people with real personalities, each with their own quirks that have kept them relatively stagnant over the years. It’s not even a case where Dong-joo needed a kick in the pants to start to really live – it’s his relationship with Song-kyung and her drive to get things accomplished that sets him in motion.
Without antagonists in the film I’d normally worry about a lack of conflict, though the premise itself takes care of that. What conflict we do get arises from the normal pitfalls of a couple navigating love, only their situation gets a bit more complicated with death looming over their heads.
Our couple first meets in the doctor’s office while Song-kyung is in the midst of receiving her grim prognosis, and Dong-joo bursts in to demand that his results be checked over once more. His entrance is all manly and tough, which then makes it extra funny that in an effort to not be forcibly dragged out of the office, Dong-joo throws himself on the ground to make himself harder to grab hold of. Ha.
That initial meeting comes and goes, and our couple meets again trying to accomplish the same thing – receiving a refund from the marriage agency. Once again it’s Dong-joo who bursts in while Song-kyung is in the office, and once again he’s ready to resort to throwing himself on the ground. Bahaha. This is why he’s still single.
They get their first real conversation over some soju, which highlights the differences in the way they think. Dong-joo starts thinking big, like robbing a bank, an idea which Song-kyung puts down with infallible logic (being an employee of the bank and all). Clearly she’s the more pragmatic one, though they complete each other in different ways. She even laughs at his lame jokes – not out of politeness, but because they share the same sense of humor.
She takes the notion of death like she’s planning a business trip, and is the first one to ask him on a date… to the crematorium. She’s already begun to meticulously plan for her death, which is something that catches Dong-joo off guard. There’s nothing wrong with being prepared as far as she’s concerned.
There are repeated scenes in the movie where she basically coaches Dong-joo on appropriate dating behavior like she’s reading from a book – how he’s supposed to get her number, how he’s supposed to ask her to stay out and not go home, etc. When he fails to attain her number after their first informal soju-date he makes it up by finding her at the bank, in a cute scene where he takes a number to wait like everyone else – except he takes all the numbers, and passes them out to other customers if the teller isn’t Song-kyung. It goes to prove that he might be awkward, but knows how to step it up when he’s called upon to do so.
Their relationship moves fast, though every development seems so organic that you’d be hard-pressed to find anything patently unbelievable about the way their relationship progresses. There’s an adorable moment where Dong-joo wonders why Song-kyung is using banmal with him, so he attempts to clear things up by sorting out their ages.
Only, he’s older than her, so she smiles and calls him “oppa.” Dong-joo practically faints from happiness at the word, which is just an unfair cute overload for those of us watching. How are we supposed to focus with all this adorableness going on?
In the absence of large plot movements we get treated to a number of dates instead, with the added spin that every date is incredibly morbid. Along with shopping for urns, they even crash a funeral to weigh their post-funeral food options, because only the best in memorial food will do.
They get into their first tiff over Song-kyung scaring a pregnant lady selling them formal funeral wear, because Song-kyung told her that the hanbok was for herself (which isn’t the norm, as you can imagine – normally people go to buy funeral wear for others). Reconciliation comes in the form of Dong-joo being a huge dork and bringing a toolkit instead of a grill for a picnic, which soon has the both of them laughing uproariously as they eat dry ramen on the car ride back.
It’s small moments like these that really got me on board with the characters early on, because there’s so much heart underneath the surface. Even then, the writers aren’t afraid to undercut humorous scenes with grim reminders – for instance, while Dong-joo has a fantasy of riding his motorcycle from Europe to Africa (with Song-kyung, of course), she notes that they’d have to fly to get where they want to go, and if they fly their brain pressure will increase, aggravate their tumors, and cause them to die. It shouldn’t be funny, but the very matter-of-fact way in which she says it is.
Lest we forget that we’re not watching your average relationship unfold, those likewise moments are littered through most of the date scenes so that we remain aware that our characters are sick and dying. Dong-joo attempts to hide his pain from Song-kyung by taking medicine in secret, which is sad in and of itself, though the film doesn’t let us wallow in sorrow for long. There’s always a funny or cute moment to break the sadness up, though that’s a point that began to grate on me a little once we reached the finale, since most of the conflict could be solved fairly easily. (Except for that big, all-encompassing conflict: looming death.)
Part of their journey in the film includes completing Song-kyung’s bucket list, and Dong-joo’s daycare van becomes a recurring motif as their form of ridiculous-looking transportation, a safe haven which always takes them forward to something new. In it Song-kyung opens up parts of her personality she’s previously kept locked away – like the freedom to curse, or to ask why she has to die. (This occurrence is one of many that wipes the smile off your face so fast you get whiplash – in the best way possible.) It also affords her a learning opportunity in the form of a driving lesson, since Dong-joo only finds out that she doesn’t have a license once she’s already behind the wheel, affording them a hilarious scene while she tries to learn the ropes and Dong-joo hopes they don’t crash and die. Just because he’s going to die doesn’t mean he has to be a daredevil, though all of his attempts to impress Song-kyung remain hilarious and heartwarming even as they reveal what a big chicken he is.
What’s also nice about their relationship is the give and take – in payment for dragging Dong-joo around from pretty locale to pretty locale (and there are many a pretty sunlit place in this film), Song-kyung puts her superior research skills to use and finds the convenience stores with the highest chances for winning lottery tickets. In a nice reversal, Dong-joo does his own research to find the tastiest coffee vending machine in Korea, and gets her a cup like it’s the grandest romantic gesture of all time.
The lottery tickets become more than just currency in Dong-joo and Song-kyung’s relationship – as the movie progresses and the truth really settles in, Dong-joo is faced with what he’s accomplished in life (read: close to nothing) and feels a debt of gratitude toward his brother and sister-in-law. With no money to repay them, he starts sneaking them lottery tickets in the hopes that one of them will be a winner.
Of course, you can trust this movie to deliver one of the cutest and grandest romantic gestures in the form of a cake Dong-joo gives to Song-kyung on the beach, with the number ‘thirty’ on top to signify that she has thirty days left to live. (And that’s his way of celebrating.) It isn’t sad to them, and he serenades her with a guitar and a song in one of my favorite moments of the film – partially because it’s so cute, and partially because the reasoning behind it is as grim as grim gets.
The honeymoon phase of this whole dying deal starts to hit home as we head into the latter parts of the film, starting with Song-kyung showing much more visible signs of her illness and Dong-joo’s family finding out about his tumor. It’s sad enough when his brother confronts Dong-joo in tears, but what really had me sniffling was his sister-in-law trying not to cry while making Dong-joo a health drink. The effort of trying and failing to hold back tears is always sadder to me than someone who sobs openly, and is so fitting with her character. Just thinking about it… waaah.
It’s never explicitly exposited, though it seems like Dong-joo’s will to live undergoes a change once he’s faced with the sorrow of his family. It starts with him taking the same gross-but-healthy drink his sister-in-law made to Song-kyung, which is the first effort either of them makes toward each other to improve one another’s health rather than just accepting death as an inevitability.
He then takes the initiative on the places they’ll visit by taking Song-kyung to a hermitage in the mountains where a record number of miracles have occurred to those with severe illnesses. He wants them to register so they can live there together, clearly of the mind that they should try to strive to live.
That’s all fine and well with her, but things start to change once the two of them receive different prognoses. Dong-joo receives some good news in that his tumor is actually shrinking, which makes him a candidate for potentially life-saving surgery. Song-kyung isn’t as lucky, with her tumor having grown at such a rate that even her remaining days have been cut down.
This is where the story derails a bit into territory that shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen a drama or two, as Song-kyung grows disheartened at all her efforts to live thus far and attempts to put distance between her and Dong-joo. “What can to sick people do together, anyway?” she asks him. “Who dies first? What’s going to happen to the one left behind? What’s the other one going to do?”
What’s sadder is that she’s using distance as a way to protect him, when so far the production worked well to subvert this kind of noble idiocy trope from happening. But happen it does, although it doesn’t degrade the overall quality of the film as much as the rather lackluster ending, which felt like a cop-out that deviated from the premise in order to keep the film firmly within the romantic comedy genre.
Despite the derailment, there’s much more to like than there is to dislike. Some character choices toward the end were displeasing, if only because the first 3/4 of the movie were set up so well, with a great sense of comic timing and assuredness of direction. We knew who these characters were along with their individual obsessions and quirks, and why they worked so perfectly together. There’s actually a scene in the epilogue that demonstrates this incredibly well – before their official first meeting, they had both gone on arranged dates from the agency that had them sitting back-to-back. Dong-joo tried one of his lame jokes on his date which fell flat, but Song-kyung overheard and laughed.
There aren’t enough superlatives to heap on the loveliness of every shot, even though the need for Constantly Backlit Scenes seemed to work against one of the most dramatic moments of the film. You know that camera trick where the camera is rigged on a round track surrounding the actors, so that during serious moments we get a 360 view? Now imagine that camera spinning on the track seventeen times during a long and important scene. Not fun, is it?
I’m pretty sure that the lapse in editing that occurred there was due to the nature of the light – the sun was setting, ergo, no time to do retakes. It certainly was dizzying though, and unfortunately distracting during a really pivotal moment. (And even then, I’m just speculating – maybe the editing during that scene was for dramatic effect and not because of time constraints.)
I absolutely adored the cast, even down to the brief cameo by Cha Tae-hyun as an aquarium employee by day, palm reader by night. The side characters we got glimpses of outside of Dong-joo’s family added to the experience without stealing focus, and worked well to establish the bright and sunny world our characters inhabited.
The bottom line: An interesting and delightfully morbid premise filled with quirky and likable characters, giving us cute and fluff with an undercurrent of grimness that never steals the limelight or strives to be depressing. It’s a refreshing take on the idea of dying, and though the story missteps in the final act the romance is something you can root for, with scenes that will have you laughing one moment only to cry the next. It could have really gone somewhere with such a novelty setup, but chose to stay safe instead. Not a whole lot of plot, but a good deal of heart. 7/10.
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