Heaven: to the Land of Happiness

Two men with nothing to lose find themselves on the wrong side of both police and criminals in Im Sang-soo’s comedy-drama.

“Money sure is powerful.”

All right, let’s cut right to the chase. This is, after all, a chase movie:

 Nam-sik (Park Hae-il) is a hospital worker with a chronic illness and who resorts to stealing meds from the hospital as he can’t afford them. Sun-woo (Choi Min-sik), known as Prisoner 203, is a white-collar convict with only a few months left on his sentence. He’s sent to the hospital Nam-sik works at, where he learns he has an inoperable brain tumour and only a few weeks to live. Knowing he won’t be released on time, he knocks out his guard and flees. Nam-sik, whose own crimes are in the process of being discovered, chooses to help out 203 and they flee together.

Their choice or escape vehicle is a hearse, which they inadvertently steal from two gangsters (Jo Han-chul and Im Sung-Jae), and they quickly learn that the coffin inside contains no body, but an immense amount of money. Together, they choose to make the best of 203’s final weeks and set off to see his estranged daughter – all the while pursued by gangsters, cops and 203’s own rapidly-approaching mortality.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Heaven at first. I’m Sang-soo’s other films – at least the ones I’ve had a chance to see – have often been grimmer affairs, with less of a focus on humour and heartfelt moments. Im’s attempt at the buddy comedy is a largely successful one, filled with plenty of chase sequences, slapstick and shenanigans. Neither Choi Min-sik nor Park Hae-il are known for their comedic roles, and it’s nice to see them kick back and enjoy themselves. They’re not playing the parts comedically, and by doing so they let the script speak for itself without the need for any shtick.

The buddy subgenre that involves two people stumbling ass-first into a situation they can’t possibly handle is one of my favourites and Heaven is a prime example of that, with lots of moments of escalation. But there are a few times when this escalation feels a touch forced: for example, it seems unlikely that the police would put so much effort in hunting down a thief and a dying man. It becomes personal around the halfway mark, and this helps anchor in the police presence, but at first it does seem like they’re doing these big chases because it was fun to see in Blues Brothers and the filmmakers wanted to replicate the energy.

Meanwhile, the gangster storyline also has a few unnecessary moments of bulking. The film introduces a mob boss played by Youn Yuh-jung, who is perpetually on the edge of death. Her daughter (Lee El) is currently running the show and has instructed the two goons to retrieve the money stolen by 203 and Nam-sik. I do see the need for the movie to give its MacGuffin a bit more of a backstory, but it ends up sometimes getting a bit too caught up with its gangster drama. The main story works fine without all the padding – though it is good to see Youn really ham it up in her cameos.

Heaven: To the Land of Happiness is a very good, fun time that never tries to be anything that it isn’t. In fact, I was impressed at the level of restraint from Im, who could have easily filled twenty minutes of screen time with a lengthy discussion about affordable healthcare. Instead, he chooses to relax the reins and let the film coast thanks to its affable cast of flawed-but-likeable individuals and action-oriented laughs. Because sometimes you have to let go, steal a coffin full of money and have some fun.

Verdict: Occasionally overstuffed, Heaven: to the Land of Happiness is a funny and often poignant drama that will likely satisfy, if only because of the scene where Choi Min-sik drops a watermelon on his head.

Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 5/10, mostly slapstick
Sex: 0/10
Anyone’s Names: Literally no idea who anyone is
Taser shots: About 1,000
In media res opening: Wholly pointless

Heaven: to the Land of Happiness (2021)

Also known as: 헤븐: 행복의

Director: Im Sang-Soo
Writer: Im Sang-Soo


Choi Min-Sik – 203
Park Hae-Il – Nam-Sik
Jo Han-Chul – Gangster
Im Sung-Jae – Gangster

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