Sometimes it’s the shows and movies we watch on a whim that leave the deepest impressions. That’s what happened to me with a film called Josée. The unassuming 2020 romance stars Han Ji-min as Josée, and Nam Joo-hyuk as Young-seok. It’s a remake of a similarly titled Japanese movie called Josée, the Tiger and the Fish (2003). An anime adaptation was also released in 2020. The story revolves around an eccentric wheelchair-bound woman and the strapping university student who ends up falling for her.
In the Korean remake, Young-seok is the strapping university student, and he comes across Josée lying in the middle of the street. Her wheelchair is on its side nearby. It’s electric, and the motor’s on the fritz so Young-seok borrows a huge cart and pulls both Josée and her chair home. Once he reaches the battered home she shares with her grandmother, Josée cooks him a meal, and it’s the start of a beautiful relationship.
Young-seok continues to find reasons to visit Josée, like helping her grandmother carry big recyclables to their house. The recyclables are how the women make money, and every time he helps Josée cooks him a simple meal. These meals spark conversations where Young-seok learns the quiet Josée is an avid reader, and seems to know everything there is to know about whisky. She also tells him outlandish stories about being born in Budapest to a foreign father, and riding hot air balloons over Kenya.
Han Ji-min gives a solid performance as a prideful young woman who’s traveled to many places and been many people thanks to her imagination. It’s a coping mechanism that reminds me of Anne from Anne of Green Gables, and it’s both heart-breaking and admirable. I like that Josée doesn’t want pity even though she could demand it in her position. Instead, she’s smart and not easily rattled— although the film does make it clear she needs to learn that accepting help isn’t a bad thing.
The only criticism I have about Han Ji-min’s acting is I would’ve liked to see more diversity in her facial expressions; more range. I understand Josée’s a stoic character, but a little more emotion during certain scenes would’ve been impactful. Or broader changes in expression. Sometimes I felt like her acting was one-note, and it’s important to avoid that even if the director chooses an understated method of story-telling. Other than that small critique, I enjoyed her performance.
Nam Joo-hyuk’s acting is notable as well. I quickly understood that even though Young-seok’s a playboy, he’s a good Samaritan with a heart of gold. He’s just lost. He’s in that daunting transitional stage where you’re about to graduate school and be thrust out into the real world. It’s terrifying, and in a way he uses Josée to avoid that as long as possible. Another thing I’d like to point out is Young-seok isn’t a big departure from Nam Joo-hyuk’s other roles. Aside from his drama The Bride of Habaek, he seems to be getting typecast as the “Conflicted Nice Guy”. I’m not surprised, because he plays this kind of role very well, but I hope he’s able to experiment more in the future.
When it comes to Josée’s supporting characters, there isn’t anyone outstanding, but everyone understood the assignment and did a good job. There’s Josée’s overprotective grandmother, and adoptive brother/son (watch the movie and you’ll understand). And on Young-seok’s side, there’s a girl at his university with a crush on him, and a cougar who moonlights as a professor. Each of them affects the plot and adds more depth to the main characters, but they’re not memorable (well, with the exception of Josée’s grandmother), they don’t have their own story arcs, and they don’t have strong point of views.
Finally, the last thing this film gets right is the cinematography. It’s simple yet stunning. My eyes were treated to warm autumn colors, snow falling on traditional style Korean homes, and even the lush, wide open spaces of Scotland. It’s a visual feast, and all of the shots are crisp and clean. I especially love the shots of Josée and Young-seok, because they’re intimate in a way that reveals their longing for each other. When it comes to the dialogue, it’s simple and straight-forward, which is fine, because it matches the tone of the movie. Flowery dialogue isn’t needed.
I won’t spoil the ending of the movie, but if you google Josée you’ll see it’s categorized as a tear-jerker, which confused me at first, because I didn’t shed a single tear. That’s because it’s not some melodramatic Shakespearean tragedy about forbidden lovers. The movie is realistic, and it’s that realism that makes it sad. So bitterly sad.
As the last scene faded into the credits, my eyes were dry, but I kept staring at the screen. I couldn’t look away, and this hollow feeling crept into my stomach. With bone-weary resignation, all I could do was turn to my friend and say, “That’s life.” After she went home, Josée lingered. I kept thinking about it. Then I remembered the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled”. The part most people recognize is:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Sometimes even if we don’t want to take the road everyone else is taking, we still succumb to societal pressures. We find ourselves walking with the crowd. In fact, a big part of the movie’s message is how the outside world can feel as big and scary as a tiger, and how powerful society’s expectations are. That’s why Josée seems to think of herself as a fish, because before Young-seok she is indeed living in a fish bowl. She rarely leaves home or has new experiences outside of the ones she reads about in books. She doesn’t even try to improve her quality of life, because she’s too prideful to ask for help and doesn’t know how to look into government assistance. But Young-seok ends up teaching her it’s okay to accept help, and because of that lesson (and his love), she escapes her fish bowl.
With that said, my final verdict is: stream Josée! It’s a good movie even though it won’t fit everyone’s tastes. It’s not dramatic or fast-paced, so some might find it boring. But if you like eccentric female leads, beautiful cinematography, and realistic story-telling, then go ahead and rent it on Viki for $4.99 USD. You’ll thank me for getting you out of your movie fish bowl.