If Josée were to be a flower, it would be annual. It would be hardy all year but then maybe it would fade away. That’s the kind of love Josée is about, sure some seasons, and gone in others. It’s a South Korean romance film about a poor man and the woman, a wheelchair user, he loves. They are together because the shifting seasons have dictated that, for a while, that is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s more right than other times. A beautiful flower can bloom in the spring and die in the winter and you can still be glad it was there. It could still be the best thing that was ever grown in your garden. We can honor the memory of relationships that went past their expiration dates without feeling defeated by them. Some relationships are evergreen and others are there to help us through short stretches where they might have been the most crucial thing in the world, and then they are not.
Built with a bold sense of quietude, Josée is emotionally expansive, at least externally. It allows us to live alongside its two characters — Nam Joo-Hyuk as Yeong-suk and Han Ji-min as the eponymous Josée — to watch their growth and their internal struggle, from a distance. The film suggests a quiet remove from connecting too deeply with either character. We sit with Yeoung-suk through his classes and his inability to hold down other romances, to be rewarded when he spends time with Josée and the screen glows with warmth. Whatever the season, warmth is always the choice of director Jong-kwan Kim. The film is a warm hug on a cold day. A nice breeze on a hot one. It’s always the right temperature and temperament. The crew behind it always judge the necessary feeling and provoke the accurate reaction. Their love takes root in the spring and the camera suggests it could be eternal. In the fall, the film is shot with such a precise autumnal aesthetic that the beginning difficulties of the relationship feel dire, but not insurmountable. In the winter, it’s a crisp chill that the couple have to overcome with the warmth they hold for each other. This may all sound obvious and the seasonal metaphor clichéd but obviousness isn’t an inherent flaw, and some clichés are repeated because they work.
Josée builds a sound emotional core around the leads. It has other minor characters, mostly as a means of connecting the lovebirds, but they do not mean anything except to point them toward each other. If it’s a cute season-spanning dream, the film also moves as glacially as the season’s calendar. It’s a slow burn without a concrete conclusion. The joy of the experience truly is the journey. It’s sitting with the couple through the arcing stages of their emotional entanglement. If it’s not enough to root for their well-being, it’s certainly not the film’s fault. Director Jong-kwan Kim ensures every shared moment is distinctly resonant and well-placed. The film is finely edited, with its seasonal segments providing natural chapter marks.
It began as a short story by Japanese novelist Seiko Tanabe called “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish,” and received an adaptation under the same title by Japanese director Isshin Inudo in 2003. Nothing seems to be lost in translation in the new South Korean version. There’s still something elemental and harmonious about the simplicity of it all. There’s also a beguiling and tropey sense that women characters are too often treated this way in film. There’s an accident and a woman is disabled. A needy young man finds her when she is physically deprived, appearing out of a freak accident as a vessel who only needs his attentions to be made whole again. That’s such a messy tangle of gendered protocols, ones so commonly ascribed in film. It possibly has not made a graceful transition from its initial 1984 conception into a modern version that has not adapted for its times. Despite all this, when the love is right, and it’s felt by the audience, you can overcome profound hurdles.
Is it enough for a film to be sentimentally moving? Josée suggests that it can be. It suggests that the easy metaphor can be enough. The easy metaphor of seasons, when shot just right, can always place the exact feeling of love in the moment. That’s how it goes with Josée, a wonderfully sweet little film that stretches itself out a little too long. Yet, you cannot be too mad at having experienced it. It’s all right to look back at the past and smile.