Film Review: Kang Hyo-jin’s “Wonderful Nightmare”

A clerical error in heaven causes a high-powered lawyer to learn the error of her selfish ways. Yes, I just gave away the entire plot of Kang Hyo-jin’s fanciful comedy “Wonderful Nightmare” in that first sentence. But that’s only a spoiler if you’ve never seen a movie before.

“Wonderful Nightmare” is built upon the celestial body-swap story template exemplified by the classic Hollywood film “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” as well as its remake “Heaven Can Wait.” It’s also a comedy that shifts into a shamelessly tear-jerking final act, a particular Korean movie specialty. All of which is to say that originality is not its strong suit. But just like the simple Korean meals longed for by the husband in this story, the fact that you’ve had this particular kind of dish many times before makes it no less satisfying. Despite its occasional tonal miscalculations, and the nakedly emotional manipulation of its later passages, “Wonderful Nightmare” mixes its easily identifiable ingredients into a pretty tasty cinematic meal.

The prologue swiftly sets up the reasons the ambitious attorney Yeon-woo (Uhm Jung-hwa) is the way she is, and basically it comes down to being orphaned as a child. Her sailor father perished at sea, and her mother followed soon after in grief. All this made her grow up believing she could rely on no one but herself. Decades later, she’s a proud, materialistic Single Lady who has clawed her way up to become a take-no-prisoners lawyer, with nary a consideration for her clients’ moral and ethical crimes. Even though she’s a staunchly independent woman, she’s hardly an advocate of sisterhood, as evidenced by the fact that we first see her defending a teenager facing trial for attempted rape. She gets the young woman and her mother on the other side to settle, since the much richer young man has the resources to fight the case, while the young woman will eventually have her identity exposed and her reputation ruined.

Since the young man Yeon-woo defended happens to be the son of the president of the real estate development company she works for, President Park (Choi Il-hwa) gives her a quid pro quo gift of the transfer to the US she’s been seeking. While she’s off to celebrate her good fortune, she gets into a car accident and dies.

It turns out, however, that this outcome is a mistake. Yeon-woo awakens to find herself in a gleaming white place that’s a relay station where the recently deceased are processed on their way to the afterlife. Yeon-woo was mistaken for a much older woman with the same name who was supposed to be sent there instead. The director of the relay station, surnamed Lee (Kim Sang-ho), after calming a hysterical Yeon-woo down, apologizes for the mix-up and proposes a solution. Yeon-woo must live out the last month of another woman who’s a few years younger, and who is destined to be sent to heaven after that time. Lee warns Yeon-woo that she must act normally and not let anyone around her suspect that anything has changed, and not to interfere with her old life, so as not to upset the celestial balance.

However, Yeon-woo forgets all that as soon as she wakes up in the other woman’s body. She shrieks at the sight of Sung-hwan (Song Seung-heon), the man who’s now her husband, as he approaches her. Sung-hwan takes it in stride, figuring she’s acting out a movie he’s supposed to guess. Yeon-woo has another shock when she looks in the mirror; to her horror, her hair is frizzy and she’s wearing dowdy housewife clothes. She also doesn’t take it well when confronted with her two kids, the bratty teenager Ha-neul (Seo Shin-ae) and the precocious young boy Ha-roo (Jung Ji-hoon). Everyone around her thinks she’s acting weird, but they all shrug it off.

This section of the film, where Yeon-woo tries to adjust to the existence she must now navigate, is marked by some rather shrill slapstick betraying a lapse of tonal control. Yeon-woo simply can’t abide the housewife role that she must inhabit, having to cook her husband humble meals with rice, wearing knockoff clothes, and having to be around a stable of unsophisticated housewife friends. These passages of the film make Yeon-woo seem particularly unsympathetic, her class-based condescension informing just about all her actions and reactions. Every now and then, Lee pops up to tell her to cool it, and not jeopardize her ability to return to her former life.

Still, Yeon-woo can’t help herself; she refuses to be simply the good housewife, inserting herself in such situations as Sung-hwan’s conflicts with his tyrannical boss (Lee Joon-hyuk) at his city civil-servant job. However, Yeon-woo (and the film itself) eventually calms down, as she softens and settles into her role, and actually begins to feel some affection to her new-found family. But of course, this domestic bliss has a poison pill embedded within it.

Although “Wonderful Nightmare” has a strongly independent woman at its center, the ultimate thematic thrust is hardly feminist. The film’s original Korean title is actually an English one: “Miss Wife,” which expresses the dichotomy between the dual roles Yeon-woo inhabits, as both a single and a married woman. It’s pretty obvious that it’s the latter status that this film sees as a preferable one for Yeon-woo, one which brings out her better qualities and turns her into a woman with compassion for others.

Despite the non-progressive nature of the film’s ultimate message, “Wonderful Nightmare” still manages to work, largely because of Uhm Jung-hwa’s spirited, game performance that’s engaging even when the script and tone occasionally fail her. Song Seung-heon makes rather less of an impression beyond being a good man, as well as a very handsome guy (a fact that the film points more than once). And regardless of how hardened or cynical you may consider yourself to be, those tear-jerking final scenes and dramatic twist will work on your emotions with an undeniable persistence.

“Wonderful Nightmare” screens November 6 at 5:50 p.m. and November 8 at  2:40 p.m. as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival.

It also screens November 11 at 7 p.m. at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the New York Korean Film Festival, with director Kang Hyo-jin in person.

For information on the SDAFF screenings, click here; for the MOMI screenings, click here.