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Closer to Heaven Review: Subtle Brilliance

Updated on March 8, 2015

"The story went on a course that was surprisingly more realistic in nature. There was no grand illusion of romanticism that made the movie feel more familiar"


Closer to Heaven (Korean Title: Love By My Side) is about a perfect love at a bad time.

Lee Ji-soo (Ha Jiwon) is an undertaker. After two failed marriages, she has almost lost hope she will find “the one”. Her old friend, Baek Jongwoo, came back to bury his mother. Baek Jongwoon has been battling a disease all his life. It is called Lou-Gehrig-Syndrome. He is losing control over his muscles and part of his brain is wilting away. They fell in love despite and decided to marry despite knowing their marriage is doomed.


Direction and Story

There are so many ways this movie could have gone wrong.

The story itself calls that the audience and the characters be given some relief after a dizzying rollercoaster ride of emotions whose highs are so gallantly grand but intimate only to be dropped to a black hole that sucks every cell of your body that has the capacity to live.

From the get go, you know it was going to be a difficult kind of love. He is sick and is fast losing his control over his muscle. She is tired of love after two marriages.

However, the Director and scriptwriter were able to find the perfect balance by allowing the narrative to go on a course that was surprisingly more realistic in nature. There was no grand illusion of romanticism that made the movie feel more familiar and warm. It became a story of two mature people who found each other at a bad time in their life. He has battled his disease his entire life. He knew how cruel life could be. She has gone through two divorces. She knew how cruel people could be. So when they found each other, it became a stable relationship. It is not the dizzying kind of love in epic proportions. It became the kind of love you know would last in this day and age.

There was also a conscious effort to make the cinematography show beauty in subtle ways. In the scene when Lee Ji-soo danced for her husband, everything in that little corner was diffused. Even her face didn’t have much make up. With a lamp as their only source of light, the pale blue dress she wore became the only highlight. Yet, the softness of the blue allowed me to appreciate her movement and the expression on their faces as the couple shares the only romantic moment they could share given their situation.

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Closer to Heaven Trailer



It is also that scene that best describes how the actor could make or break a role. As Lee Ji-soo danced, her movement was restricted. They only had a curtain to separate them from others but Ha Jiwon had this amazing ability to make her body talk of love, express the passion she wants to share with husband but couldn’t because of his condition. It was passion she was conveying but the kind that was based on love. It was a dance of woman, of a wife to her husband she loves so much. As she swayed her hips, moved her arms and twirled around, you could feel how she was giving it all for him. It may not be much for others but to the both of them, it was all they had.

Ha Jiwon could have attacked her role several ways. She could have ended up being the desperate and perpetually beautiful wife who refuses to face the fact that she married and loved a dying man. She could have been helpless and pull us all into her side as we witness her go down the path of depression and deny her fate and eventually beg the world and every supernatural being for a miracle.

She could have become a strong and stiff woman who takes on everything bravely, logical to the core to nurture her own survival and brush the ego of her husband. She could have played it dumb but go balls out on love.

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Instead, she played it real. She became a woman who finally found the right man after two failed marriages. She wasn’t all romantic, giddy and girlie with her new love. She knew what marriage was and what it took. She was in touch with failure and pain that also made her appreciate it more when she finally got it right.

She was the undertaker who fully understood how inevitable, necessary and kind death is but also accepted her humanity that made her need to possess the one she loves. She was both at the same time, all the time.

She was a strong woman with strength that is more visible in subtlety. She wasn’t stiff, formal and unreadable. After all, she was a working class citizen who lives the pain of ordinariness. She knew how it was all going to end when she decided to start it. Not that she didn’t pray for a miracle or shed the tears when the man she loves was slowly wilting away in front of her eyes but she didn’t crumble either or broke down like a lunatic even though it would have been justified. She knew right from the start that she made the most out of what they got when they had the chance and stretched it for as long as they could. It was enough.

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Ha Jiwon is also one of the most beautiful celebrities in Korea but it is interesting how 'deglamorized' she was in this film. No, it’s not one of those “natural make up treatment” kind. She was downright plain. It allowed me to watch her character and not the celebrity.

Baek Jong-woo, on the other hand, was easy to hate from the get-go. He has battled his disease all his life but also knew that there’s no stopping it. He has done all he could to delay it but there was no way he could have stopped it. He knew the kind of life he was living and he chose to drag someone else to it. It was an extremely selfish act. Yet, Kim Myungmin was able to appeal to everyone’s understanding.

It helped that he was written off as a fighter all his life. He was never the kind who went on gently into the good night. He knew his death with certainty but decided to live a life with remarkable tenacity and energy. However, it was his eyes that did the talking. It was the love that his eyes was able to show that convinced me he also knew he was making her happier and her life better by making her feel what love is.

He was bedridden for almost half the film which left him with nothing but his eyes to do most of his acting. The fact that he was able to create a perfectly balanced love story speaks volumes of how good he was here.

For a blatantly grim story, the lighting was predominantly bright in the whole movie.
For a blatantly grim story, the lighting was predominantly bright in the whole movie.
The film colors and production design were subdued for the most part but a splash of colour and subtle highlights make the scenes beautiful instead of bland.
The film colors and production design were subdued for the most part but a splash of colour and subtle highlights make the scenes beautiful instead of bland.

The Shortcomings

The movie is not perfect. There is the underexploration of her past. A little more narrative about her past would have allowed us to understand how a woman like her would willingly go into a relationship with a man who is dying. It’s not as if it was love at first sight for her. But then again, it does not necessarily leave a hole in the story. For one, she is an undertaker. She deals with death all the time. Death is a concept she fully grasps and understands, perhaps, more than anybody else. To love a man whose mortality is certain is probably as ordinary to her as it is to love a man with diabetes to us.

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You could also go deeper into their characterization and ask whether it is really love that she feels or pity for a man who has struggled so hard to live life right. Maybe the one thing that’s making her survive is that her attachment is not so deep. After all, she never agreed to go out with him until she confirmed he was dying. It’s an issue the film the never addressed, at least not explicitly.

Yes, it’s easy to say it started with pity and developed into love. It is easy to argue that Lee Ji-soo did everything with love. Then again, it remains a valid question.

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I’ve seen a number of Ha Jiwon movies. Being an Asian films fan, I constantly come across many of her TV shows and films. She’s first gained popularity from her early horror films. Now, she is also known as an action star. Surprisingly, it is when the movie is subtle and subdued that she truly shines. It gives her an opportunity to truly act such as Closer to Heaven and Miracle of a Giving Fool, but that’s another review.

Aside from her acting, it is the overall treatment of the film that makes this a must-see. There are no big plot twists in the film. There are no surprising elements or big surprises. Yet, it will pull you in so hard you’d want to give the two main characters a hug as soon as it finishes.

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Closer to Heaven Cast Interview

Film Info

  • Written and Directed by: Park Jin-pyo
  • Produced by: Lee Eugene
  • Release date: 24 September 2009
  • Country: South Korea


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