On a regular non-pandemic day, a quiet film like Josee would be easily overlooked, buried under the hype of action-packed high budget films.
But with most Hollywood blockbusters delaying their premiere dates, Korean and Japanese films seem to be having their moment in the spotlight, occupying most big-screen time slots. And in the silence of sparsely populated movie theatres, Josee stands out with its powerhouse lead actors, Han Ji Min and Nam Joo Hyuk, who have reunited after working together on the critically acclaimed 2019 melodrama, The Light in Your Eyes.
A brief synopsis on Josee
A Korean remake of the 2003 Japanese film, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, Josee tells the story of a young disabled woman (Han Ji Min), who lives alone with her grandmother in their dilapidated house. Wheelchair-bound, she is dependent on her grandmother, who makes a living as a ragpicker.
Our protagonist meets a young college student named Young Seok (played by Nam Joo Hyuk) and introduces herself as “Josee”. He approaches her slowly and sincerely, helping her apply for social welfare and improving her living conditions.
When Josee’s grandmother dies, Young Seok becomes her primary caretaker. As her walls begin to fall, she becomes more dependent on him. The two begin a relationship and experience first love and heartbreak in all its pains and joys.
A world of lies
Given her disability, Josee is unable to travel overseas. Restricted to her run-down house, she reimagines a world for herself through the books she reads.
Coming up with her fictional backstory, our protagonist lies indiscriminately, from claiming to have visited places she hasn’t, to being half Caucasian and born in Budapest.
Josee’s lies are debunked by other characters, who tell us that she was an abandoned child who escaped an abusive orphanage before being taken in by grandma. But she doesn’t seem to mind. “Josee” is the name she claims, and we are never told her real name.
While Josee crafts lie after lie about her life, the film is almost too honest about who Young-Seok is. Our male lead is introduced as a helpful college student, who brings Josee home after her broken wheelchair leads to a bad fall. He goes out of his way to help her, even renting a trolley to transport her home.
Very quickly, however, a promiscuous side to Young-Seok is immediately shown to the audience in a morning-after scene following a tryst with one of his college professors. We then see Young-Seok having to suck up to another professor to secure a stable corporate job after his graduation.
Lacking a purpose in his life, it is no wonder that Young-Seok finds himself repeatedly revisiting Josee and her grandmother. With the harsh emptiness of his reality, the jaded Young-Seok clearly understands the appeal of Josee’s lies. He willingly steps into Josee’s facade without ever attempting to disprove her ridiculous claims.
Rather than an immediate attraction to Josee, a desire to be kind and useful to someone is perhaps, what drives Young-Seok to help her. Following her grandmother’s death, when Josee asks him to stay by her side forever, he immediately agrees and moves in with her.
Later on in the story, Young-Seok struggles to disconnect himself from the reality of his life. He faces difficulties getting a job because of his former fling with his professor, but fails to share any of his real-life hardships with Josee. Tucked away in their run-down shack, the blissful couple attempt to ignore the fact that their lives are a mismatch.
Reality confronts them quietly when the two visit an amusement park, where Young-Seok carries Josee on his back so she can get on a Ferris wheel. As the Ferris wheel ride comes to an end, Young-Seok holds on to the door of the capsule they are riding in, prolonging their ride for another cycle. The scene is a beautiful metaphor for our male lead hoping to stay with Josee despite realizing that the world of beautiful lies she has built and that he has stepped into, will not last.
Five years later, Josee visits England, and it initially appears that Young-Seok is there with her. But this time, the facade quickly fades away — Young-Seok is now married to the ex-girlfriend he left for Josee.
Following the time skip, the breakup comes as a surprise reveal later explained via a brief flashback which ends the movie. There is little to no communication and no conflict between them. Josee and Young-Seok’s relationship simply ends when they both realize that their time on the Ferris wheel is over.
Differences from the 2003 film
The film cuts out several crucial conflicts from the original story. The most significant change is deleting the original film’s climax, where Young-Seok’s character chickens out from introducing Josee to his family.
Instead, there is no mention of Young-Seok’s family throughout Josee. Even their flashback breakup scene happens quietly in an aquarium, where Josee tells her lover that she is no longer lonely, and lets him go.
Josee is very much about the relationship between its leading couple, to the point that all other characters refrain from emotional expression. The film reduces Josee’s relationships with grandma and her fellow-orphan friend to plot devices that explain her motivations for lying. And instead of an emotional outburst, Young-Seok’s ex-girlfriend comes to a quiet realization of his affection for Josee, ending their relationship.
An ableist romance
While the intention was clearly to illustrate a short and bittersweet first love, the dynamics between the couple are depicted as admittedly unhealthy. From the way she is stuck in her home to Young-Seok carrying her everywhere, Josee is defined by her disability, leaving the audience little space to imagine that she would be fine following her lover’s departure.
The film fasts forward into the future, where Josee forms healthy friendships and now drives a car. But we are not privy to her growth and are expected to assume that despite our doubts, Josee is doing well. This ending comes too quickly to be believable, making an unsatisfying resolution.
The problem with Josee is that it is quiet. Too quiet. Instead of showing its audience its conflicts, the movie reduces all confrontation to silent passings, and the audience is left to infer for themselves the dynamics behind each relationship.
What Director Kim Jong Kwan has done with Josee puts all the focus on the main couple. While Han Ji Min and Nam Joo Hyuk sell the affection between Josee and Young Seok with their solid chemistry, Josee suffers from an overreliance on its leads to tell its story. Our main characters may be layered and complicated, but their subtle relationship may come across as too empty for the average audience to stay invested for 117 minutes.
What fills the emptiness
It is perhaps because of this emptiness in the plot that we get a beautiful film. Josee is gorgeously shot. The bleakness in the titular character’s life is foreshadowed through the saturated cinematography and the ever-so-slight change to warmer lighting after Young-Seok moves in highlights the couple’s struggle to feel less alone together.
Each frame, from the cramped dark space to the wayward placement of books all around the house, paints Josee’s old cottage as a good place to escape. The soft fairytale winter backdrop is also a poignant analogy for the couple falling in love in the middle of a harsh winter in their lives. The film emphasises the beauty of their relationship although it may be a temporal one.
The hanging question
The main issue between our couple was the fact that their relationship was fueled by a desire to escape. Josee wanted to escape her loneliness, and Young-Seok wanted to run from the lack of meaning and purpose in his life. Despite the true love they develop for each other, the film asks its audience: can a relationship truly be grounded in fiction?
This question lingers in the air long after the credits start rolling. A beautiful film with a simple story, Josee is a cup of tea for a very niche audience, who thinks about the film weeks and months, perhaps even years after leaving the theatre. For anyone in search of instant gratification, Josee will perhaps, not be a memorable watch.