September 17, 2011

Garden of Heaven: She's Dying to Fall in Love for the First Time

Let someone else with a nobler sense of right and wrong deride Garden of Heaven for its oversimplified protrayal of hospice patients. I, for one, found its shameless depiction of the terminally ill to be jaw-droppingly hilarious. There isn't a cliched representation overlooked or underplayed from the cute kid who crayons self-portraits on the wall so his mom won't forget him to a carefree young woman who insists the doctor himself is her most effective painkiller. That blithe spirit is played by none other than Lee Eun-ju, the incredibly talented actress who went on to give a brilliantly harrowing performance in The Scarlet Letter before committing suicide shortly thereafter. You'd never know Lee was suffering from depression from watching Garden of Heaven because there's nothing self-pitying in the way her character baldly states that she's an orphan who's never been in love and who wants to be held by "someone who cares" in her final moments. That Lee is able to relate such treacly sentiments in a such a matter-of-fact manner turns what might've been soapy stuff — of which there's still quite a bit — into something that's a little less corny. She often disarms you and never depresses you. You may even assume that she's a little more complex than she is when, in one particularly fatuous plot twist, she parlays her cancer into a modeling gig for an unintentionally hysterical television advertisement for life insurance. But she's no scam artist. She really is dying.

Her co-star Ahn Jae-wook isn't quite as nuanced as paramour-savior Dr. Choi but at least he shares Lee's complete lack of concern with tugging heartstrings, despite their being endlessly ready for plucking. Ahn appears to have turned his charisma down for Garden of Heaven. The quartet of nurses who worship the ground he walks on are inexplicably blind to the cruel rebuke he levels at a mother who's just lost her child ("Let's get the death certificate now!") and his complete disregard for professional ethics as he falls for the prettiest patient on the ward. A rather tearless tearjerker, Garden of Heaven pushes the expected buttons in the disease-romance genre without triggering the de facto response. Think of the fundraiser near the end of the movie: A filmmaker who's dying at the hospice makes a short documentary about Dr. Choi that lauds him as an Angel of Death then a lineup of patients play a melancholic tune with handbells that create sounds that don't sync up with the soundtrack. That constant sense of something off make Garden of Heaven something you should turn on.

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