Review: Lee Joon-ik’s “The Happy Life”

The title of Lee Joon-ik’s The Happy Life at first seems like a bitterly ironic jape, since the lives we see on display seem to be anything but. Ki-young (Jung Jin-young), recently unemployed, lives off his teacher wife Seon-mi (Kim Ho-jeong). Both his wife and his daughter Ju-hee (Kim Ah-sung, the daughter from The Host) have little respect for him. His other two friends live in similarly humbled circumstances: Hyuk-soo (Kim Sang-ho) sells used cars and Sung-wook (Kim Yoon-suk) makes deliveries by day and is a hired driver at night. They are high school friends who have fallen out of touch over the years. They are brought back together when Sang-woo, a mutual friend, dies suddenly, having suffered an accidental fall down the stairs during a bout of drinking. When Sang-woo’s embittered son Hyun-joon (Jang Geun-suk) tries to burn his father’s guitar, Ki-young stops him and takes it home with him. It turns out that all four friends were in a high school band called Active Volcano, who had a short-lived career due to losing in the preliminary rounds of a school competition that occasioned the birth of this band. Ki-young seizes on the idea of reforming the band and reliving their glory days. His friends at first mock him, but when they experience their own series of setbacks, they agree to reform the band. They rent out a recording studio to practice, and they begin to feel the old magic coming back. After a disastrous audition for a nightclub manager, their rock career is rescued by Hyun-joon, who takes over the lead singing duties originally performed by his father. They return to the club owner and pass their audition with flying colors. They are an instant hit at the club, garnering enthusiastic responses, and even a cadre of young female groupies. However, their new status as local rock heroes causes strife with each of the men’s spouses. Another fresh set of personal tragedies threaten to break up the band once again.

The Happy Life follows the formula of Lee’s previous film Radio Star almost to the letter. Both films deal with aging rockers attempting to recapture their youth in the face of the harsh realities of their present circumstances. Formula though this may be, it’s a winning one. The story, in terms of the film’s focus, takes a back seat to showing the way these old friends interact with each other and exhibit the easy camaraderie which results from knowing each other for many years. There are a couple of passages that bring tears to the eyes, where the men use their music to soldier their way through their pain. This music is a defiant cry of “No!” to the myriad forces conspiring to knock them down and thwart their dreams. Lee, as he does in both The King and the Clown and Radio Star, excels in dramatizing the vicissitudes of male friendship, and how these relationships can often eclipse those of wives, children, and other family, and sometimes be more intense and long-lasting. Lee’s film has a charming, genial flow that moves with a seeming effortlessness that is a beauty to behold.