Chungmuro/Film Reviews
Movie Review: Closer to Heaven (2009)
by | October 17, 2014 | 18 Comments

Director Park Jin-pyo is best known for unconventional melodramas like Too Young to Die and You Are My Sunshine, but when I heard about the basic premise of Closer to Heaven (내 사랑 내 곁에), I thought perhaps director Park had finally decided to make a conventional terminal-illness melodrama. And in terms of its story, Closer to Heaven really is a conventional terminal-illness melodrama. However, it’s restrained directorial approach and superior performances helps elevate it above other efforts in the genre.

In Closer to Heaven, Lee Ji-soo (Ha Ji-won) is a mortician whose work has left her twice divorced. She is hired by Baek Jong-woo (Kim Myung-min), an old friend of hers who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Jong-woo proposes to Ji-soo on the spot, both knowing that he likely only has a few years left, but moved by his lack of disdain for her profession, she accepts and things are good for a while. Then the disease progresses and both Jong-woo and Ji-soo struggle with his steadily weakening condition and mortality as they become residents of a hospital ALS ward.

Although the story is built on the clever concept of a terminally ill man getting involved with a woman whose job is to prepare the dead for their ceremony of passage, the actual story is fortunately focused more on the reality of romance and relationship in the face of mortality and suffering. The story beats are about what you might expect from terminal-illness romance melodramas — Closer to Heaven doesn’t deviate from the form — but the execution of the story, particularly in direction and performance is where the film stands out.

Since the film is so focused on the two lead characters, it’s important that both Ha Ji-won and Kim Myung-min are up to the task. Kim Myung-min is of particular note, dedicating himself to the character to the point that he physically lost a ton of weight and let his own muscles atrophy to potently capture the increasingly frustrated Jong-woo’s perspective. Ha Ji-won does play a bit plucky at times per her common type, but manages to perform across Kim Myung-min’s Jong-woo well enough when a more dramatic air is called for. Both took home trophies from Korean award ceremonies for their performances.

And director Park tackles this subject matter by drawing back and mostly letting the characters and the picture speak for itself to the point that most of the notable music in the film is diegetic. There is no dramatic swell of music when Jong-woo collapses or suffers a setback nor does the film try to sweeten the early romance with pop songs. However, because the film is titled after Kim Hyun-shik’s classic tune, music does remain important to the film as Park Jin-pyo presents and recalls a song that the pair share together.

After the story reaches the ALS hospital ward, it extends to include moments with other patients, which is welcome as it opens the window to multiple perspectives of love in terminal illness. On the other hand, the narrative isn’t always solid, especially towards the final act as the film never really defines the moments that determine how Jong-woo and Ji-soo see each other in the end.

This takes a bit of the air out of the film’s sails, even though all the tears that Closer to Heaven engender in its audience are earned. Closer to Heaven isn’t the kind of terminal-illness melodrama that yanks tears out of your ducts through carefully engineered moments of sympathy like A Millionaire’s First Love or A Moment to Remember, but are won as we get to believe in the characters through excellent performances and patient direction.

So, while Closer to Heaven doesn’t really add anything to the terminal-illness melodrama that we haven’t seen before, the film does provide a more genuine and natural experience than most. And I think that makes it worth checking out with a box of tissues, if this kind of film is what you’re looking for. 7/10.

Where to watch it: Despite being one of the most successful straight melodramas of the last decade, Closer to Heaven doesn’t have much international distribution. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find used copies of the Korean or Taiwanese DVDs (with English subs) from auction sites. If you can read Japanese, the Japanese DVD (Japanese subs only) still seems to be available at retail in Japan.


18 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. Rowanmdm

    Thanks for the ending note on where/how to view this movie. It sounds like a good one, and it’s nice to know where I should spend my efforts in tracking it down.

  2. Miko

    OMG It’s Ha Ji Won!! LOVE her!! Thanks so much for posting this!!

  3. houstontwin

    Thanks for the review! I am afraid that the subject matter is just too sad for me. There is so much going on in the world today, that I seek a certain level of escapism in the movies that I watch. That is not something to be proud of but rather, an act of self-preservation.

    • 3.1 ThoseWhoKnowMe...

      Same here. I love both actors a lot & I’m sure they did a terrific job but I have to deal with pain & hurdles everyday in RL: I don’t need to add ‘life’s a bit*** & then you die’ fiction to the lot.
      Thanks for the review, RD!

      • 3.1.1 Shadow-chan

        I know exactly what you two mean.
        Especially since my aunt died of ALS…

  4. Funfare

    You can watch the movie here:

  5. Babs

    I’ve seen this move about 3-4 times and the punch of the characters never fails to reach me. The subtlety of the film is why it has power and drive… And seeing an actor that is that compromised with the roll, just brought it home for me… I never liked the ending though, it’s just too much for me specifically, but the rest of the film why I’ve watched the movie that many times.

  6. karecity

    I’ve watched this movie before. Really moving. The performances by the both Kim Myung Min and Ha Ji Won were outstanding.
    You are my Sunshine is really good too.

  7. tieuyeunu

    I watched this movie a couple of times already, there were too many ‘shock scenes’ where KMM was laid out on display for viewers to emphasis with his slow decline. I thought it was a pretty cheap shot.

    However, the performance was very well done, Ha Ji Won, I love the woman, was a lacking at the start, her character was a mess of confusion with the bear minimal acting required, only in the later parts of the movie she had some standout scenes. This movie was really about KMM and how much he had sacrifice for the movie.

  8. Anonymous

    Watched the movie.Outstanding performances by both actors.

  9. Thursdaynexxt

    Thanks refresh_daemon!

    Saw the photo of KMM and HJW and just had to check it out. It somehow dropped off my to-watch list, but now it’s firmly back on, thanks to your timely reminder!

  10. 10 Peridot

    Thanks for the review!

    I think I’ve seen this film about three or four times (yeah, I’m a sucker for punishment, lol). I believe I may have seen in on YouTube at one time, but I’m not sure if it’s there anymore.

  11. 11 kanz

    I watched this movie few months ago when everyone talked about ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and I was curious to see it. KMM’s character moved me to tears. Really amazing portrayal of him!! Ha Ji Won also did a good job.
    Overall the movie itself is satisfying.

  12. 12 bd5

    Haven’t seen this, but “You Are My Sunshine” is an excellent film.

  13. 13 logan5

    we’ve watched it on YouTube several months ago … so check out there as well.

  14. 14 Kelly

    This movie was beautiful but very sad 🙁 I cried a lot and I normally don’t cry at movies…I love Kim Myung Min and Ha Ji Won, so I knew it was going to be good <3

  15. 15 Eliza Bennet

    This one was suprisingly realistic looking and I think the director resisted to melodrama with all his might.

    But the story is so touching and the performances, both so so good and involving that I have cried lots of tears during.

    But this doesn’t have the shiny, pretty melodrama mortal disease. It looks icky and you get to feel the impact of what’s happening and the effects of the decisions a care taker has to give.

  16. 16 whitewire

    My heart broke to pieces, back then, while they were doing the filming. Even as an avid follower of Kim Myung-min (because this was his project after Beethoven Virus, where he won me permanently), I couldn’t stand reading his drastic weight loss journey. It’s too cruel to think about.

    We’re not even talking about Tom Hanks’ Cast Away diet, where there was time to be the isolated man on the island. Because Kim Myung-min needed to be thinner, and thinner, and thinner, daily, daily, daily, because his character requires a show of a fat and healthy person… then a sick one, to a sicker one, to a thin one, then loss… then loss… then loss… There should be OBVIOUS loss of weight, obvious enough for the camera to capture and project on-screen. Argh!

    I’m so happy he recovered from this! I’m proud because he’s an awesome actor, but can’t deny how much worry he gives to his fans where he chooses such measures. Such method acting, Kim Myung-min!

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