“There is a pain that you cannot truly understand until you have experienced it yourself…”
So runs the dominant theme in the beautiful, unexpectedly humorous, yet haunting 49 Days featuring the exquisite Lee Yo Won and the blithe Nam Gyu Ri. Indeed, it is empathy, or the lack thereof, that is at the core of each of the stories woven together to create the tapestry that is 49 Days. It is through empathy that the players both forge and discover their natural bonds to one another; it is in its absence that they fail to connect or even see the potential for solidarity, solace and redemption in the unforgiving onslaught of alienation, loss and betrayal that assails the living soul.
In the end, 49 Days posits that “happily ever after” is a matter of interpretation and need not be just a fairy tale: in the words made immortal by Nat King Cole: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.” Reciprocity in 49 Days is not transactional; rather, it is dynamically empathic.
The story primarily revolves around the relationship between Song Yi Kyung (Lee Yo Won) and Shing Ji Hyun (Nam Gyu Ri and Lee Yo Won), two women brought together by a cluster of seemingly coincidental occurrences, the first of which appears to be Yi Kyung’s unsuccessful attempt at suicide in traffic. Even before they meet, it is clear that these two women’s personalities and world views are polar opposites.
Lee Yo Won’s Yi Kyung is a woman so beaten and damaged by loss and pain that she exists in a depression so deep that going through the simplest motions of her life costs her painfully visible effort: waking up and getting herself to her all-night convenience-store job wears her out. Muttering the bare minimum for social intercourse tasks her greatly and even just breathing appears to be a chore.
Nam Gyu Ri’s Ji Hyun, on the other hand, is a sprightly creature who appears to lead a charmed life; her tender, adoring parents are happily well off, her friends are engaged and attentive and her brilliant, handsome, and accomplished fiancé is devoted to her. The only exception seems to be Han Kang (Jo Hyun Jae), an old high school friend who makes little effort to hide how much her insouciant goodness annoys him.
When Ji Hyun meets her untimely demise in the traffic pile up caused by Yi Kyung’s suicide attempt, her unmoored spirit is cast into the liminal space between life and death and there she gets a chance to reclaim her life if she can accumulate evidence –in the form of three pure tears– of the love from at least three people who knew her in life. For someone as universally belovèd as Ji Hyun this should be easy enough. However, neither the experience nor the expression of Love are that simple. And so begins Ji Hyun’s education in seeing and understanding the subtle complexities of the human heart. The laws of cosmic balance dictate that Ji Hyun gets to interact with the living through the body of the very person who caused her death, Yi Kyung.
The change in affect in actor Lee Yo Won, depending on whether Yi Kyung is herself or possessed by Ji Hyun’s indomitably sunny spirit, is immediately apparent. More than a mere change in mood, hers is a veritable transformation in personality as she alters between someone who has completely given up on a world she believes has repeatedly rejected her, and someone who is completely engaged and invested in a world that she loves unconditionally and which she believes loves her equally.
The most important questions explored in the lives of these two women who are figuratively (and literally) night and day are about what it means to love and to be loved. In exploring these questions, 49 days manages to be enticingly arcane at the beginning by focusing more on characters and the vicissitudes of their complex lives rather than on mere exposition. Here there are no paint-by-numbers profiles of love; both Ji Hyun and Yi Kyung learn that what appears obvious may not in fact be what we believe it to be. They also discover that conversely, we can also fail to see what is directly in front of us because of our own inability to understand what we are looking at. The result is a story whose subtleties are gradually and gently revealed in successive layers, like a lotus flower opening in the growing light of revelation and comprehension as the core players of this tale are forced into seeing the world through one another’s eyes during Ji Hyun’s 49 days on the threshold between life and death.
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Actors who can offer manifestly different personalities with subtlety and apparent ease within a single narrative frame are always impressive. I am currently, and have been since last year, in particular awe of Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany who plays nearly a dozen different people (not just personalities within one body). All of Ms. Maslany’s characters are clones but each has a particular life history and therefore different personality (including distinct speech patterns, specific physiological biases and characteristic personality traits and tics). In truth, Ms. Maslany has set the bar remarkably high for thespian virtuosity – so much so that even the celebrated talents of the universally acclaimed Meryl Streep now pale in comparison, in my opinion.
All this to shine a light on the beautiful Lee Yo Won’s theatrical brilliance in 49 Days where she plays two women with personalities that are (quite literally) night and day!
Once again, in praise of Lee Yo Won. Just killin’ it!