In person: star Choi Min-Sik!

Choi Min-Sik himself insisted that if we were showing his films we had to show Failan or he’d be angry—and the last thing we want to do is make Choi Min-Sik angry. But, to be honest, we would have shown it anyway, because this is the kind of movie where you don’t just cry—your tear ducts explode. Melodrama is Korea’s national genre, but director Song Hae-Sung brings a new element to the table: restraint. Failan is a move that keeps its cards close to its chest until it finally lays them on the table in a stunningly effective climax.

Kang-Jae (Choi Min-Sik) is a fifth-rate gangster, a loser in the evolutionary sense who steals money from the elderly, pees in the sink, and screws up even the simplest errands. But his luck turns around when his boss kills a rival and demands that Kang-Jae take the rap and serve his ten-year prison term. Great news for Kang-Jae! Finally something that he can’t screw up! Just then he gets word that his wife, Failan (played by enormously popular Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung), has died. Who? Years before, he married a Chinese immigrant so she could have legal papers, and now he has to head to her hometown to wrap up her affairs. Once there, he starts talking to people who knew Failan, and reading letters she wrote to him but never sent, and he comes to realize that maybe this woman who never met him, knew him better than he knows himself.

Failan is the kind of movie that gives melodrama a good name. Choi is at the top of his game, and Cheung keeps what could have been the goody-two-shoes role of the century from turning saccharine. And from the music to the camerawork, Director Song’s iron hand of restraint keeps the emotions dammed up until they burst out in the last act. Choi would go from Failan to his career-defining performance in Im Kwon-Taek’s Chihwaseon, and Cecilia Cheung would go from strength to strength, but they’ve never been better than they are here, playing two people who fall in love even though they never meet.