Review of “Heaven: To the Land of Happiness”: a detective comedy for a strange couple
A terminally ill prisoner and a gunned down hospital worker steal a hearse stuffed with Mafia money in “Heaven: To the Land of Happiness”. This combination of road movie and crime comedy goes well for about half of the runtime, but loses momentum as sentimentality and extended masculine bonds take over the more playful components of the film. Well served by the cast of star performers Choi Min-sik (“Old Boy”) and Park Hae-il (“The Host”) as unlikely allies, “Heaven” should be warmly received by local audiences, but the famed South Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo’s latest offering is unlikely to get the same international exposure as his best-known works, such as “The Housemaid”.
Originally selected for Cannes 2020 but unable to screen due to the pandemic, Im’s film instead received its world premiere as an opening night attraction in Busan 2021. A very different proposition. of his emotionally pungent and politically provocative works including “The President’s Last Bang,” “A Good Lawyer Wife” and “The Taste of Money,” this escapade around a beautifully photographed Korean countryside finds me in a much more relaxed and thoughtful mindset.
In the quick opening segments, we come across a convicted embezzler known only as Prisoner 203 (Choi). At the end of his five-year term, 203 discovers he has an inoperable brain tumor and has a fortnight to live. Before his time is up, 203 wants to apologize to his distant daughter (Lee Jae-in) and then die by the sea. Nam-sik (Park) works at the hospital where 203 was diagnosed, a gentle nurse. and Sweet who has stolen the prohibitive drugs he needs to fight Fabry’s disease, a crippling and often abbreviated affliction.
When 203 decides to leave the hospital, he finds an accomplice in Nam-sik, who is about to be caught by the authorities and thinks he might as well come with him. A nifty series of coincidences find the duo hijacking a hearse containing a coffin belonging to a criminal family. After deciding to stop and bury the box, the duo discover that it is filled with money.
Im’s storyline hums pleasantly as 203 and Nam-sik scavenge as much money as they can carry and aim to reach 203’s daughter before it’s too late. In pursuit of them is an interesting gallery of eccentrics, including a stubborn and not too bright cop (Yoon Je-moon) and two henchmen (Cho Han-cheul and Im Seong-jae) employed by the matriarch of the crime clan. terminally ill Madame Yoon (Youn Yuh -jung). Appearing in her sixth feature film Im and Oscar winner for “Minari,” National Treasure Youn steals every scene she’s in as a bedridden boss who might be at death’s door but can’t stop belittling and berating his glamorous daughter (Lee El) about the missing moolah.
But neither the entertaining Madame Yoon nor her animated minions play a big part in the middle part of the film. Im’s storyline slows down considerably as 203 and Nam-sik exchange tales of doom before bickering, having a good time, and ultimately becoming inseparable best friends with a new appreciation for life in the face of impending death. Choi and Park are great together and there’s a sincerity to the script that will keep patient viewers engaged, but the brisk pace and freewheeling spirit of the story takes a noticeable hit when the pack of cops and crooks pursuing is relegated to the sidelines.
“Heaven” finds at least some of its mojo with an exciting chase in which 203 and Nam-sik steal a female cop’s motorbike (Susanna Noh), and the return of Madame Yoon’s thugs for one last stab at settle the score. While not aimed at big belly laughs, the script offers a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and has a terrific racing gag involving the use of tasers.
Despite its slow patches and a score that indulges a bit too much in the 1970s “wacka wacka” disco guitar for its own good, “Heaven” reaches a destination that may be very familiar but should leave many viewers with the same genre. feeling like a character who says in a moment of reflection “it made me warm and made me happy”.