Jero Yun’s 2018 feature Beautiful Days (뷰티풀 데이즈) is a haunting slice-of-life melodrama that features quietly affecting performances from its main cast and an engaging film with a relatively simple and ultimately straightforward story.
The film opens with a father (Oh Kwang Rok) telling his son Zhen Chen (Jang Dong Yoon) that the mother (Lee Na Young) who left them fourteen years ago is alive and living in Seoul. Leaving their rural Chinese home, Zhen Chen travels to Seoul to find her. But he could have never imagined the life he finds her living in now: she runs a seedy bar and lives with a deadbeat boyfriend.
Zhen Chen’s anger leads him to a violent encounter. And after spending the night with his mother and a morning of shopping for him, he flies home to China alone. But the mother slips in her diary and Zhen Chen learns the truth about how she was able to escape North Korea and eventually settle down with his Korean-Chinese father and his family before abandoning them.
The revelations don’t stop there, however. And two lengthy flashbacks unravel the secrets that led them all to where they are today.
The film progresses in a slow, careful manner. The jumps between the present and past are the only jolts the film gets between quieter and pensive moments.
Beautiful Days has a melancholic tone that is excellently supported by Jero Yun’s atmospheric direction and an affecting score by Mathieu Regnault. Music, framing and lighting are almost characters on their own as they highlight the sort of wistful sadness each of our characters feel in the moments depicted on screen.
You may not be shocked, per se, by any of the revelations. But the direction and the performances are that good that you will be deeply moved by the unfolding of events and feel for each character.
The experienced trio that lead the film elevate the material. Jang Dong Yoon has grown into one of the best young actors today. And he does a great job expressing the conflicting anger and longing Zhen Chen feels for his mother.
Oh Kwang Rok is measured as the father. After a quick appearance at the start of the film, his presence becomes more prominent and important later on. And when that happens, he is able to deliver a performance that is both quiet and strong.
The same can be said for Lee Na Young. The film does a masterful job of finding depth in silence. And Lee Na Young’s performance manages to say a lot with less. Between the first meeting with her now-grown son to the telling flashbacks of her past, Lee Na Young is able to express so much depth with very little dialogue. It’s a captivating performance.
Overall, Beautiful Days is an interesting, melancholic look at moments in time in this family’s life and the unexpected paths they take before finding themselves back together.