Josée, directed by Jong-kwan Kim, based on the short story by Seiko Tanabe, screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The film is a remake of a 2003 Japanese film called Josee, the Tiger and the Fish. This Korean remake stars Han Ji-min as Josée, a disabled woman who lives in her world, and Nam Joo-hyuk as Yeong-Suk, a college student who becomes part of her world. Josée is breathtaking; the colors exude warmth with the contrasting poignant story. The story, despite some confusion, will leave audiences fighting back tears. Beginnings are always full of promise and endings, no matter how harmonious, remain tinged with sadness at what might have been. 

Quiet Romantic Tale
Josée still of Yeong-Suk and Josée looking at each other.
Josée still of Yeong-Suk (played by Nam Joo-hyuk) and Josée (Han Ji-min) courtesy of Fantasia Festival

The film is sweet and sad—a memorable yet painful mix. Yeong-Suk meets Josée when he finds her lying in the street because she tried to escape a despicable man who molested her. He helps her back into her wheelchair and home. After Josée gives him a meal as thanks, he leaves but begins coming by to help her and her grandmother. 

Josée tells him stories of her worldly past, but it is apparent these stories are fiction. Trauma too early can cause those harmed to seclude themselves from the world to stave off more pain. I love that they don’t go into detail about her past. They focus on how Josée now deals with the world by creating her own through stories. Sometimes, being trapped is preferable to taking risks. 

As Yeong-Suk continues to visit, their relationship blossoms into love. However, Yeong-Suk moves toward love while Josée seems to distance away. Josée reminds me of The Way We Were, and though we wish “love conquered all,” it often comes down to whether people want to fight for it. Sometimes, though, we meet people who help us become more than we were if we are lucky. Josée starts as a shut-in, scared to let the outside world in, but she is more outgoing by the end, and even her expressions have life to them. 

Becomes Confusing, But Has Dynamic Chemistry
Josée still of Yeong-Suk (played by Nam Joo-hyuk).
Josée still of Yeong-Suk (played by Nam Joo-hyuk) courtesy of Fantasia Festival

Josée becomes a bit confusing, however, with the time jump scene near the end. It is unclear from this point when Josée’s imagination took over and what happened. I could only guess based on visual clues onscreen. The ending is confusing as well since it isn’t clear when it takes place. Though the story is still strong, viewers may resent the lack of clarity toward the end. 

Nam Joo-hyuk does a compelling job. He conveys youth and caring. His character starts as a college student messing around with a professor until he falls for Josée. He also depicts the sad moments to incredible effect. Han Ji-min is amazing. Her performance is quiet and often reserved. Yet, there’s discomfort on the surface as though she’s unsure how to interact with other people. She is knowledgeable thanks to her avid reading but is rusty with interactions with people. The chemistry between them is dynamic.

Still, although Han Ji-min researched so she could play the role, it’s disappointing that they did not cast Josée with someone who has lived experience. Actresses and actors with disabilities get few opportunities, whether stateside or overseas.

Cinematography Is Captivating

The direction and cinematography are beautiful. Warm hues of leaves in fall and winter, snow scenes, the aquarium, and the sky are all striking. Shots of Josée at the window in her room transmit her isolation and yearning to escape. Direction uses distance to convey the emotional distance between characters. The music throughout is at home in the bittersweet, romantic quality of the film. Each time the music swells, there is an accompanying pain with the joy of each lovely moment. 

Josée is stunning; the story has beauty, nostalgia, and love. The cinematography is colorful with purpose. Its story will leave heartache sitting in viewers’ chests. Our cast is small and intimate, and the acting keeps viewers engrossed over its almost two-hour runtime. The film may not make all audiences cry, but it will leave them aching.

Feature photo courtesy of Fantasia Festival