Woo-jin is a single father living with his elementary school-aged son in a small town, working as a janitor at the town swimming pool. Each morning as they leave their home, they plant a kiss on a photo that hangs by the door, showing the two of them with the boy’s deceased mother, Soo-ah. Both Woo-jin and his son desperately miss Soo-ah, who passed away the previous year. But just as the rainy season starts, a miracle happens.
From an abandoned train tunnel, Soo-ah re-appears, looking just as she did before her untimely death. She seems to recognize Woo-jin, but she has no memory of her life spent with the two of them. Confused but overjoyed, they take her home and the three of them start to live together once more. For Soo-ah, it is as if getting to know them for the first time. For the boy and his father, it is a deep, healing joy that washes away their grief, but they both suspect that her time with them may be temporary.
Be with You is based on a Japanese novel by Ichikawa Takuji, which in turn was made into a 2004 film by Doi Nobuhiro. Both the novel and the film won over many fans in Korea, so it was a smart move to re-adapt this story for a new generation of Korean viewers. Debut director Lee Jang-hoon proved fortunate in his casting as well, landing not only the popular film and TV star So Ji-sub (showing a very different side of himself than he did in Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Battleship Island), but also the queen of melodrama herself, Son Ye-jin.
Son Ye-jin is an absolute pro, and it’s no criticism of the other actors to say that her Soo-ah outshines everyone else in the film. Despite being curiously passive for much of the running time (for reasons that become clear in the surprising turn of events that emerge in the second half), Son carries the role with her presence, never expressing more than she needs to. The other actors tune their performances to hers, making the scenes with her feel natural and genuine.
The genre of melodrama used to be a pillar of Korean cinema, so much so that it was a key part of the industry’s identity. But over the years, as investors and studios switched their allegiance to thrillers and social dramas, melodramas have fallen by the wayside. Simultaneously, the explosive growth of the Korean TV drama sector, where melodrama is king, has left film melodrama looking displaced. One might fault filmmakers for not developing their own, distinct style to distinguish film from TV melodrama. But clearly, there is still interest in such works among the theatergoing audience. Sure enough, Be with You opened at #1 at the box office and showed unusual staying power, resulting in a profitable run.
Be with You is not without its weak points (I’m not sure I can ever find it in my heart to forgive Woo-jin’s pink jacket... those who see the film will know what I’m talking about). But in its intricate web of flashbacks, reunions, tears and revelations, it builds towards an emotional and satisfying conclusion. It will certainly not appeal to viewers who actively dislike melodrama, or to cynics. But for those more open to the genre’s charms, it is an easy recommendation.
Born in 1973, Lee Jang-hoon originally majored in computer science, and did not enter the film industry until his 30s. After first working on an original screenplay that failed to come together, his producer asked him if there was any existing work which he might want to adapt into a film. At this point Lee remembered reading the Japanese novel Be with You and suggested it to his producer, who was able to clear the rights. Released in March 2018, Lee’s debut film Be with You was a solid box office hit.
2018 – Be with You