‘Happy Bus Day’ (‘Hae-pi-bbeo-seu-dei’): Film Review | Hong Kong 2017

Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival
Truly brutal.

Korean director Lee Seung-won’s comedy about a neurotic family’s murderous birthday party won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

A dysfunctional family converges on their family home to kill one of their own in Happy Bus Day, the second feature from young Korean helmer Lee Seung-won. Two years on from his debut, the ironically titled Communication and Lies, in which a couple tells fibs to sustain a fragile relationship, Lee’s latest is all about eight people tearing each other apart with more callous candor.

Unfolding mostly within the claustrophobic confines of a small house, Happy Bus Day plays out like a cruder version of Cristi Puiu’s family-meltdown drama Sieranevadacomplete with the emotional histrionics common in Korean domestic sitcoms. Having just premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize, and then at home at Jeonju, Lee’s film boasts enough chaos and confrontation to secure the attention of programmers seeking quirky, rough-and-ready indie comedies from South Korea.

First things first, though: Happy Bus Day doesn’t feature public transportation of any sort. Rather, the title is a corrupted take on “Happy birthday,” and the action begins as the characters arrive at their family home to attend what seems to be a celebratory feast for their mentally challenged eldest brother. As they argue and fight, however, it emerges that this gathering actually is about preparing for his imminent death, as the brood agrees to poison him and put him out of his (and their) misery.

Like the ailing patriarch in Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, the so-called “monster” is left largely unseen throughout the film. Rather, he’s the human MacGuffin deployed to bring out the monstrous personalities of those around him. There’s the uncouth matriarch (Seo Gap-suk); the hypocritical second brother Ki-tae (Lee Jae-in); the stuttering thug of a third brother Sung-il (Lee Joo-won) and his airhead girlfriend (Jang Sun); the neurotic intersex fourth brother Sang-hoon (Park Ji-hong); the knife-wielding autistic fifth brother Seung-hwan (Kim Sung-min); and the perennially smartphone-fiddling sister Ah-hyun (Kim Ae-jin).

The only remotely sane and sympathetic individual in the family is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ki-tae’s wife Sun-young (Kim Sun-young from Communication and Lies, who happens to also be the director’s wife). Just like many a daughter-in-law in a Korean soap opera, Sun-young does all the cooking, bears the brunt of her mother-in-law and tries to resolve the frequent internecine squabbles, while struggling to reconcile herself with the family’s deadly plans for the day.

Ditching nearly all the visual stylization that defined Communication and Lies — a black-and-white film shot in an old-school 4:3 aspect ratio, and one which begins with an extended, eight-minute take — Lee has gone all-out here in a sendup of zero-aesthetic trashy TV series (over-the-top performances, kitschy musical accompaniment) and in-your-face indie fare (hand-held camerawork, minimal production design). That’s not to mention the situations the characters somehow find themselves in: screaming matches at home alternating with nerve-wracking scenes in which a character is mercilessly bullied by his gangster friend (played by the director himself no less) before being forced to help him assault a young woman in a toilet.

Indeed, at its most punitive, Happy Bus Day is painful to watch, as if Lee is trying to test his audience’s patience by plunging them into ever darker revelations about his characters’ unseemly present and past. He redeems himself by teasing nuanced performances out of his cast, especially Seo as the maddeningly anguished mother and Kim Sun-young as the long-suffering wife. Happiness might be in short supply, but it’s a gripping rollercoaster of a day.

Production companies: Surplus Project
Cast: Seo Gap-suk, Kim Sun-young, Lee Jae-in, Lee Joo-won
Director-screenwriter: Lee Seung-won
Producers: Kim Sang-su
Executive producers: Hong Jae-joon, Kim Young-min
Director of photography: Ji Seung-woo, Song Hyun-chang
Production designer: Choi Hyo-ju
Editor: Son Yeon-ji
Music: Park Ki-hyeon
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Sales: M-Line Distribution

In Korean
113 minutes