You can trust the Koreans to come up with a film that pads itself so much that the narrative seems to be never ending, until the final act that sledgehammers the best of emotions, tugging at your heartstrings and realizing that the extended narrative was all worthwhile for the payload at the end. Written and directed by Kim Young-Tak, Happy Ghosts may seem like a lightweight comedy that follows a tried and tested route, but I guarantee you'll be hard pressed not to give it a standing ovation when it continues to veer into melodramatic territory, just as you thought that Kim's pace was off for the most parts, that everything got forgiven for what was the final scenes that made the movie instead of breaking it.
Cha Tae-Hyun of My Sassy Girl fame stars as Sang-Man, a man whom we see in the opening scene trying to commit suicide in a cheap motel by swallowing a number of pills, only for the attempt to be thwarted by the motel owner who intervened on time. A subsequent attempt to drown in a river also got interrupted by coast guards on duty, and a quick trip to the hospital allowed him a second chance at life, bringing him back from the brink of death only to open his eyes to the presence of a number of ghosts who reveal themselves to him when in the hospital, each possessing distinct traits such as a smoker, an alcoholic, a weeping lady and a young boy with an incredibly sweet tooth.
As we soon learn, Sang-Man is depressed for having to be an orphan in the world, and quite fed up at being alone. As the adage goes, be careful what you wish for, as he now has unwanted company in the form of those spirits who each take turn, or sometimes almost simultaneously, to possess him, leading to expected hilarity as he demonstrates the dominant trait to the bafflement of others. Under the advice of a medium, and probably any one of us who have seen our fair share of friendly spirit films, the spirits are in our world using the body of a human as a vessel to go about completing their unfinished business, before they can finally depart the earthly realm.
Thus begins the quest to finish each of the ghosts' outstanding issues in narratively episodic fashion, such as one wanting to watch an animated movie, another wanting a camera back from a policeman, or even a simple requirement of having a meal together. While it will all make sense later on, it will, at this point, frustrate the impatient viewer as the episodes aren't quite ground breaking in any way, having this rather coincidental or familiar feel to them all that you've probably seen something similar in another film. The bright spark will of course be that the ghostly quests also all seem to point to, and help Sang-Man, in his romance of the hospital nurse Jung Yun-Soo (Kang Hye-Won), setting up an avenue for romance as well although it was a rather awkward, though inevitable, inclusion, into the storyline that took quite a while for it to develop.
Thematically, this is a film about belonging and family, where the lack of one drove one to want to kill himself for the lack of love and essential support, while for another character to detest whatever family she has left, albeit the latter not being too pronounced for the most parts. It reminds us of the importance of family and how grudges should always be addressed and not left for too late, reminders about positions that we sometimes lapse into. Kim also had a lot of ground he had wanted to cover with his story, resulting in the setup being quite scattered and a shifting in focus, with characters entering and being left out for the most of the midsection.
Cha Tae-Hyun may have made his name as the male lead opposite Jun Ji-hyun in My Sassy Girl, and while Jun's career may have taken off in relatively stratospheric fashion, I suppose it is now that his will finally make people sit up and take notice, playing a character being possessed by different characters will mean the actor having to impersonate or adopt the various character traits developed by others as his own that will allow for a showcase of acting chops of some sorts, from having to laugh, to cry, even some signs of childishness and slight feminism, contributing to intended comedy thanks to Cha's comedic timing, and hang-dog looks that he exploits.
There are the usual plot element loopholes as well which shouldn't bother the casual viewer, unless one gets perturbed by issues when the filmmakers didn't set their goal posts firmly, such as deciding whether the things the ghosts touch in the real world will affect those items directly, or that they would just be representations in the spiritual realm, although one can argue that such instances are performed through Sang-Man as the vessel, but if you observe closely, it's not being kept consistent.
But don't let that detract you from what makes for a powerful drama that will make you hard pressed not to reach out for that tissue. Little did I expect this to be what it was summed up at the end, and for that, made the erratic pacing for the most parts of the film come with a little bit more gravitas that warrants at least a repeated viewing, and powers its way into my shortlist amongst this year's best. Highly recommended!