As disease-of-the-week movies go, A Smile is oddly uninformative about its spotlit illness: retinitis pigmentosa. This currently incurable degenerative eye disease can cause a short list of intermediary symptoms -- ranging from night blindness to color separation issues to blurring to tiredness -- before the dreaded darkness sets in. Yet aside from some early mentions of tunnel vision and the occasional bumping into objects like a tripod or a low table, photographer So-jung's (Choo Sang-mi) primary side-effect appears to be depression. Her soul is suffering more than her sight and her symptoms feel more psychological than physical. When she informs us her situation is getting worse, you can't help but think: Girlfriend, your biggest problem isn't retinitis, it's you!
Unable to reconcile herself to the possibility of going blind, she ends a relationship with her really sweet boyfriend Ji-seok (Song Il-gon), mopes around her grandmother's funeral without telling anyone else in her family of her recent diagnosis, and sells nearly all her cameras and equipment to run away and take flying lessons from a drunk aviator in the middle of nowhere. At no time do we see her exploring treatment options (admittedly limited) or tracking down her father's side of the family (the disease is genetic). It appears a part of So-jung saw doom forecast and then just ran with it.
I wasn't sure whether writer-director Park Kyung-hee wanted us to feel she was bold or batty when she decided to throw her life away so she could learn to fly but I definitely fell into the latter camp. So-jung's longing to get free of the earth and see the world from a new perspective may have some poetic cache but as an element in a hyper-realistic drama, she comes across as incredibly irresponsible and egocentric. Will she ever take to the skies? If she does, will she crash? If she crashes, will she die? If she dies, will she see again? If she does, will she meet the smiling Buddha which was one of the last things she photographed? And if he does, will the Buddha smile? I wouldn't.