Kim Jae-wook speaking Japanese is love. Can he please start doing only Japanese films from now on?
Matsumura Ryoko (Nakayama Miho) is a popular novelist in her 50s who knows she has Alzheimer’s. One day, she meets So Chan-hae (Kim Jae-wook), a young Korean man in his 20s who is working and studying in Japan. Slowly, they become attracted to each other…
Butterfly Sleep (蝶の眠り / 나비잠) is a Japanese-Korean production helmed by Korean director Jeong Jae-eun, and filmed with a predominantly Japanese cast (Kim Jae-wook was the only Korean in the cast). I’m not a fan of terminal illness stories, or romances with massive age gaps, so I was initially going to give Butterfly Sleep a miss. However, the prospect of watching Kim Jae-wook speak Japanese for the entire film was too good to pass up, and after reading a couple of fairly positive reviews, I decided to take the plunge.
The story is nothing out of the ordinary, but what perhaps sets it somewhat apart from so many “bucket list” terminal illness stories is how calming the feel of the entire film is. Except for a handful of emotional scenes, the film did not feel too depressing or overly cheerful as though it were trying too hard. There is a sense that Ryoko is trying to compensate before her time runs out – what with taking up the guest lecturer post at the university, making amends with her ex-husband and trying to finish her final novel – but she doesn’t go overboard and it is perhaps this remaining sliver of rationality (and touch of pride) that ironically robs her of more time with Chan-hae. Her increasing memory loss is charted with ups and downs, some gentle and may be overlooked, others bringing into sharp relief the painful consequences; the eventual denouement is bittersweet and heartbreaking.
The romance wasn’t as awkward as I’d thought, despite the huge age difference – it helps that in real life, the actors are only 13 years apart. I like that Ryoko and Chan-hae bond over words – their love of books, writing, language – and that he is eventually inspired to write because of her. They are both lonely people at heart but desperately trying not to seem so, and perhaps each could sense that in the other, which is why they click. Writing is used here as insight into understanding a person’s thoughts and character, and Chan-hae does this through helping Ryoko type her manuscript. I also love the way Chan-hae arranges Ryoko’s bookshelves in the various colour tones and gradations, and how it all comes back when he recalls her comments about him leaving his footprints in his own way. Indeed, we are often not aware of the kind of impact we may have had on someone, regardless of the length or depth of the relationship. I do wish that Ryoko had been upfront with Chan-hae about what their future holds, instead of pretty much leaving him to deal with the resultant emotional pain alone, especially since Chan-hae genuinely cares for her and comes across as someone prepared for the long haul in such a relationship.
As a Japanese learner, all the language bits (such as ヶ vs ヵ) were pretty fun for me, and I paid special attention to Kim Jae-wook’s enunciation. His is an interesting case, for he lived in Japan from when he was a baby until he was around seven to eight years old (because of his father’s correspondent job), so Japanese is practically his “first language” and he has taken great pains to maintain fluency. I love hearing Kim speak Japanese and the feel is different from when he speaks Korean – in Japanese, he somehow comes across as gentler, more calming, and more sensual. Since Chan-hae is a Korean exchange student, the film had Kim speaking mostly fluent Japanese, but with a noticeable Korean accent – there was emphasis on the g and b, for example, which is more common in Korean where the distinction between g/k, b/p and d/t is sometimes blurred. That said, those are not things that one would go out of one’s way to pick up, unless one has special interest in Japanese intonation or is learning the language.
Acting-wise, I thought Nakayama Miho was excellent throughout and it was a pleasure to watch her once again. I had first seen her many years ago in the iconic film Love Letter, where she played dual roles with aplomb, and have generally liked her. She’s not been particularly prolific, so it was a pleasant surprise to see her in the film and I am glad that Kim Jae-wook was able to learn from her and experience what it is like to film in Japan. They had some lovely, understated chemistry and while Nakayama was perhaps the more dynamic of the two given how Ryoko is shaped – she was great in the scenes where Ryoko has to grapple with the effects of her memory loss – Kim complemented her well and there was an inner tenderness about Chan-hae that Kim brought out really well. The few emotion-heavy scenes were done very well, and I particularly liked the ending, when Chan-hae meets Ryoko at the sanatorium and breaks down in front of her. Kim was superb from the build-up to the final release; you could see the realisation dawn on Chan-hae’s face as he asks Ryoko if she remembers and then his heartwrenching sobs when it all hits him. In contrast to his extreme pain and regret, she is at peace with herself – a fitting end to the film.
Overall, I’m glad to have watched Butterfly Sleep and also its making video for an insight into the filming process – the director spoke Korean and a translator was on hand to interpret everything. Kim Jae-wook said he learnt a lot from Nakayama Miho and would love to be able to speak better Japanese if he had the opportunity to film in Japanese again. I really hope Kim gets tapped up by any of the Japanese TV stations so we can finally see him in a J-drama, speaking fluent Japanese. That would be sexy times indeed.