Chungmuro/Film Reviews
Movie Review: Christmas in August
by | May 5, 2014 | 28 Comments

Melodrama is one of the most prevalent genres in modern Korean fiction, and one of the preferred tropes used to heighten emotion or stakes within it is that of terminal illness, having been employed in countless Korean films and serials throughout the decades.

Sometime in the 2000s, the use of terminal illness as a melodramatic plot point reached such a saturation point that it became cliched and is now the subject of parody, like in the drama series within the movie Sunny. It’s often used as a plot twist, and while there are exceptions, many times it’s more of a tool than a subject of thoughtful exploration.

Christmas in August (1998) is a particularly notable examination of terminal illness. Notable because it represents the feature debut of director Hur Jin-ho, a major figure of the Korean New Wave; because it starred two of the most popular actors of its time, Han Seok-kyu and Shim Eun-ha; and because, unlike the American film My Life, it actually manages to avoid melodramatic sentimentality rather than embracing it to excess. And in doing so, Christmas in August manages to make some impressive observations of life in the shade of death.

In Christmas in August, Han Seok-kyu stars as Yoo Jung-won, the thirtysomething proprietor of a small photo shop in the similarly small city of Gunsan. And Jung-won is not well. He is facing some unnamed terminal illness, but goes about his days as normal, serving his customers, with only his widower father (Shin Gu), with whom he lives, and his sister (Oh Ji-hye) in the know about his condition. One day, twentysomething traffic cop Da-rim (Shim Eun-ha) begins patronizing his store to develop pictures of unlawfully parked cars and the two develop an attraction for each other, even as the prognosis from the hospital becomes more grim.

One of the things about this film’s script that I appreciate is that it’s always mindful of Jung-won’s impending death and while he manages to downplay it with both his family and his friends, trying to stick with his good-natured attitude, it clearly has a tremendous impact on his interactions with his friends. Jung-won is clearly trying not to be overwhelmed by his end of life and continues to live like he wasn’t terminally ill, but the cracks in that facade soon develop, leading to some subtly heartbreaking moments throughout the film.

This is, of course, heavily on the shoulders of Han Seok-kyu and company to deliver nuanced performances; Han, Shin Gu, and Oh Ji-hye are especially impressive in how they carry themselves. Both Han and Shin manage to keep a current of grief and concern under the surface as they otherwise continue day to day, the former falling to small outbursts of emotion and the latter showing his concern through a light touch on his ajusshi exterior. Oh, in her few scenes, manages to invoke more direct emotion, but at the same time clearly shows herself trying to follow her brother’s lead and be strong.

Hur Jin-ho does the film a great service by infusing a great deal of warmth, both in the warm-hearted character of Jung-won, the lingering on the simple moments shared between the characters, and even the warmly lit cinematography by the late Yoo Young-gil, a Korean film veteran for whom Christmas in August would be his final film.

Some scenes are so simple, yet so effective in conveying how quickly Jung-won and Da-rim are getting close with each other, whether it’s Da-rim slowly and awkwardly inching closer to Jung-won on a bench, or how she latches onto his arm as he relates a ghost story. Much like the rest of the film, the simplicity and the strength of direction and acting in these moments make them more charming and romantic than an effusive declaration of love.

Christmas in August takes the melodramatic trope of terminal illness and opts to warmly and subtly explore it from the viewpoint of a man trying to live as he always had, and love as he wished he could in the shadow of death, rather than using it as a plot point to wring emotions. That somehow makes Christmas in August more moving than melodrama, earning the emotion through studied observation. Rather than the unnaturally hyped emotions of excessive melodrama, we get a character exploration and a convincing one at that, making Christmas in August an auspicious first film for director Hur and validation of the reputations of the actors that star in it.

Though inspired by melodramatic tradition — romance in the face of certain and untimely death — Christmas in August far exceeds its hoary roots and makes for a compelling film, one that contributed to the legacy of the rebirth of the Korean film industry. It was one of the most popular Korean films released in 1998, garnering admissions just shy of half a million per KOFIC, and with good reason: It’s simply a wonderfully understated and warm film given its subject matter — a must watch for lovers of Korean cinema. 10/10.

Note: Christmas in August is available on Korean Blu-Ray and DVD with a new HD mastering and it looks really good on Blu-Ray for a film released over 15 years ago, which is when I first watched it on muddy VHS. The Korean DVD is All Region. There are also additional distributions localized to Hong Kong, Japan, US, and UK that can be found at online retailers and auction sites as well at a range of prices.

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28 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. Kaybee

    One of the few initial films which left a lasting impression on me…
    I wonder why Korean dramas and films over played terminal illness a lot during that time so much that every hit dramas and films were based on it… My friends and families don’t like to watch Korean dramas and films saying, “one of them dies anyways”… I wonder their obsession on this theme…

  2. Aly

    it was such a lovely surprise to see a movie review just as i was about to go to bed as it’s been a while since i have seen one on here. can you try to do more please? i really miss them.

    funnily enough, this was one of the movies i was seriously thinking of watching a week back, but the whole terminal illness thing put me off because i’ve seen a few that haven’t been the greatest. but i think i’ll actually give it a review after your lovely review.

    i’m not familiar with these two actors, so i’m looking forward to seeing them. also, have you watched friend or friend 2 the movies? friend 1 was obviously amazing and i just finished watching friend 2 so was thinking what your thoughts were on them. :)

    • 2.1 refresh_daemon

      Hi Aly, thank you for your kind words. I had to take a break due to overwhelming career and personal life issues, but I’m definitely trying to get some more reviews written for Dramabeans when I find some time.

      I did see the original Friend, back when it first was released, but have not seen Friend 2. I might go back and watch the original some time, but I’m not sure when.

    • 2.2 Claudine

      Oh, you should definitely watch this! Christmas in August was one of the first Korean movies that I’ve watched and it left quite a strong impression it started my whole K-movie addiction. Seriously a match-watch.

      @refresh_daemon: The moment I saw the thumbnail-sized poster, memories of this beautiful film came to mind that I was teary-eyed the whole time I was reading your review. Thank you very much!

  3. JoAnne

    I will add to the watch list – once you said that he wants to love as he would if he weren’t dying, I’m all for it.

    I don’t want to watch a whole movie of noble idiocy and repressed feeling (well sometimes I do) but I would really enjoy watching two people choose to love even while knowing more certainly than most that they only have a short time together.

    • 3.1 Kiara

      I’ve seen that kind of noble idiocy in real life and it made me really sad. This guy I know found out that he has cancer 2years ago. He decided that he is no longer worth being loved and that his wife deserves better so he started pushing her away, telling her to leave etc. Last year she finally got tired of it and left. Now he is all alone and regretting it.

    • 3.2 refresh_daemon

      JoAnne, I wouldn’t say that this is a story of two lovers choosing to love each other in the face of terminal illness; the struggle is a bit more one-sided. However, I don’t think that it’s a matter of noble idiocy in this case, as it seems like circumstance and uncertainty prevent it in Christmas in August. There might be a whiff of it in the film in one particular scene, but I actually think it’s fairly justified given the circumstances.

  4. the68monkey

    Oh, thank you for this review! Christmas in August was one of my early Korean cinema films, and it wasn’t long before I was completely in love with Han Suk-gyu. :) It’s such a lovely film, and sooooo much better than the horror film reunion with Shim Eun-ha many years later.

    I think I own this on a VCD, rather than a DVD! I wonder if I’ll be able to stand the poor picture quality if I pull it out and play it on my DVD player tonight. If not, I think I need to find a DVD of this film after being reminded of it by your review.

    Thanks!

    • 4.1 Bell

      Way back then i only watched kmovies but not kdrama. Bought this vcd and cried for days. An ex colleague borrowed the vcd and never return it. She took JDG’s Love Wind Love Song as well but i dont mind cos it has chinese subtitle only.

      i randomly streamed it online a few years back but once i realized it was that movie, i just exit and ended up crying, again.. sighhh..
      .

  5. Elise

    my other favorite movie surrounded around terminally ill disease is Last Gift (or The Gift) by Lee Jung-jae & Lee Young-ae) released in 2001.

  6. Kiara

    refresh_daemon welcome back :) Missed your movie reviews.

    I’d watch anything with Han Seok-kyu. I heard Yoo Young-gil died a couple days before “Christmas in August” came out in the theatre:(. I haven’t seen anything with Shim Eun-ha but it sounds like she was fantastic in it.

    Thank you for the review. I’m looking forward to watching it.

    • 6.1 Kiara

      I found it and watched it with my mom. We both loved it but we saw the ending differently.

      S P O I L E R A R L E R T

      The last scene, did she or did she not know that he died?

      My mom thinks she did not know because he put the letter in a box and that it would’ve been too painful for her to know that he died. SO she was fine with it.

      I on the other hand am convinced that she knew even though it was not shown who mailed the letter. I noticed that there was a stamp on it. Maybe dad mailed it, maybe he mailed it before he died. Those last words were so touching, she has to know how he felt and I thought it was a beautiful ending seeing her smile when she saw her picture hanging on the window of his shop. If I’m not mistaken that photo was in the box with the letter.

      I’m not trying to say I am right and she is wrong. I thought it was interesting that we both see the ending differently.

      • 6.1.1 calgary

        I think she knew because in the final shot she’s all made up, dressed in black and looking extreme pretty. I would guess that she came back from the funeral to visit the store one last time.

        Here’s the picture: http://thumbnails84.imagebam.com/20105/692214201044595.jpg

  7. My2Girls

    What a treat! This was my first foray into the world of Korean entertainment back in 1998. It has had a lasting impact on me ever since. I LOVE this film. Now that I look back at the thousands of hours of Korean TV (and to a lesser extent film) I have watched I realize that this film is still one of my absolute favorites. The acting, the directing, the cinematography are all sublime and the subject matter handeled beautifully. Thank you for the wonderful review and the reminder of this gem of a film.

  8. Enz

    Is was my first contact with korean cinema. It was shown on malaysian tv years and years ago and i just happened to catch it. I have only watched it once but i can remember the story pretty well and some scenes still stick in my mind.. The when he and his sister were eating watermelon and having a competition as to who could spit the seeds further. And him tking pics of the old woman etc.

    It was beautifully shot and beautifully told and as you siad, very understated in its emotions but that made it all the more moving and memorable.

  9. Yumi

    Thank.

  10. 10 JoJo

    I saw this movie several years ago, and thought it was boring. After reading your review, I think I’ll give it another try. Thanks.

  11. 11 laura

    this movie is gorgeous. my most fave korean movie. i love how calm and soothing this is, that even the pain is dampened and yet amplified, and when your tears finally run dry, you are left with a very sweet memory. and not a lot of things are said but that is good because it leaves a lot to the imagination, especially the last scene. i realized i was in love with it in a scene where Jung-won was washing some vegetables outside with a hose, that was so relatable, like we do that in our house. and jung won was such a happy character, but you have a sense that maybe he was boring before and that his impending death was actually motivating him to go after the things he wants more, or maybe not, maybe he really is just calm and jolly through and through. and darim, she is so sweet and i can see myself throwing that rock too, and really, she is this wonderful ray of sunshine in this film, and you can feel for jung won, that you just really want to live a little more because of her. and i dont appreciate cinematography at all, but i pride myself in noticing really good visuals in this one. i sooo love this movie. i hope a lot more people watch this.

    but can anyone answer what the significance of the school season in this movie is? is it just to signal that it’s august (i couldnt get it because classes start on june in my country) or is it something deeper?

  12. 12 selena meyers

    I watched this recently after a wee bit of Han Seokkyu’s fever in Berlin File. Gahhh, never had a movie made me so mellow for days after. It was just so beautiful and haunting. I had never seen Shim Eunha but I wish she made more movies before retiring.

  13. 13 susie

    I saw it last year. Very understated treatment of death and mortality. Some of the scenes are still etched in my mind. Like the cop girl who comes looking for the guy in his shop. She peers through the cracked glass and inside the dust laden shelves. It was heart breaking. And just like that…life is gone. Without drama or fuss…just like a crinkled leave falling off the tree in autumn.

  14. 14 bi

    Beautiful movie & review… thank you ^_^

  15. 15 Dramafed1782

    Welcome back refresh_daemon! Was waiting for your movie reviews. I love this movie a lot for the very same reasons you had mentioned in the review. And one of the most important characters in the movie itself is the photo studio. Especially the last scene when he took his self portrait – truly heart breaking.
    Even though it is a romantic melodrama- the pain, anguish, feeling of falling in love and many more is beautifully described and shown in the movie. Have you by chance seen Shim Eun Ha’s last movie “Interview”? I tried searching for reviews online but so far have seen only brief synopses (including IMDB). The story seemed interesting to me :)

  16. 16 niKai

    i remember watching this film so, so many years ago. It was a really nice and touching movie, though I must admit i nodded off or downright fell asleep somewhere in the middle of it. But I manage to finish it. I felt the emotion was portrayed in a beautiful and subtle way, but it was a rather slow pacing movie so I wouldn’t recommend people to watch it when you are too tired from schoolwork or office work or life in general. Good movie though.

  17. 17 Ara

    Thank you for the wonderful review. I’ve watched this movie back when it was first released, and yes watched it on a VHS as well. It was one of the first Korean movies that I had watched and it surely left a great impression on me. And your review made me want to watch it again, so maybe it’s time to dig out that old VHS :D

    Looking forward to reading more of your other film reviews.

  18. 18 FGB4877

    I watched it a moment ago and liked it a lot. As in a saga (as a genre) you know what characters know, with only just a pair of voiceovers. This keeps the over the top melodrama away and feels more like a slice of life.

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  20. 20 Aly

    it’s 2:20 am here and i just finished watching it. it was a tender and beautiful watch. although i am still unsure about the ending. it was clearly a gem of its time. thank you for reviewing it and bringing it to my attention. i teared up a few times and thought it was a shame she quit acting. she seemed like she had a lot of potential. i’m going to look up more of his work.

    i’m listening to the soundtrack right now. so beautiful <3

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