Following the success of Communication and Lies, director Lee Seung-won spent two years crafting his follow-up effort about a neurotic family coming together for a murderous birthday party. After a successful theatrical and festival run that netted the film massive critical acclaim and numerous awards, the movie arrives free to stream on the ad-supported service TUBI TV in the United States.
Coming together for a family dinner, Ki-tae (Lee Jae-in) and his wife Sun-young (Kim Sun-young) arrive at his mother’s (Seo Gap-suk) house for a birthday dinner for their youngest son Seung-hwan (Kum Sung-min). Joining them are his brother Sung-il (Lee Joo-won) and his girlfriend (Jang Sun) as well as intersex brother Sang-hoon (Park Ji-hong) and youngest sister Ah-hyun (Kim Ae-jin), who quickly learn that they’re to participate in the killing of a family member who’s become a burden to the rest of the group. Unsure about pulling it off as it will interfere with their own plans, the group debates and goes about their own lives until they finally come to accept the deed, forcing them to band together in a way they never have before, in order to successfully execute it.
There isn’t much to like about “Happy Bus Day.” Most of the films’ positives are centered around the technical skills used to bring it together. The cramped apartment where it all takes place is given plenty of impressive visual flair that imposes plenty of dynamic visuals of the family gathering together around each other. By featuring Sun-young by herself in the house but crowded out when the rest of the family arrives, the idea of her normalcy being drowned out by the craziness and absurdity of what’s happening becomes quite apparent. The longer this goes on with the family getting worn down by the stress of the situation and their own neurotic tendencies come to light, the darkness in tone matches the film-style by switching to darker tones and more cramped-in locations within the house. These are what work the best for the film.
The film doesn’t have too many issues, but they are detrimental. The most pressing problem with “Happy Bus Day” is that none of the characters here are interesting or sympathetic, causing your interest to wander significantly. No one here is really explored at all, leaving this to focus on caricatures for the family members who end up becoming so unlikeable and unworth having to be around, that the end result doesn’t have any importance. By seeing how they’re all self-centered, ignorant of everything but their own lives and generally just being rude and cruel to everyone else, there’s no impact on the revelation that something’s gone wrong and they’re forced to make peace with the final outcome. The situation isn’t funny or heart-wrenching, it’s just plain boring which makes this one incredibly challenging to get through.
On top of that, director Seung-won fails at making this ludicrous gathering have any real-world significance. The simple notion of killing off the disabled brother because he’s a burden to the family is all we get as far as a motive. With this being the central premise of the film, an in-depth explanation about this in further detail would not only fix that issue but solve the aforementioned not caring about the family. Any attempt to get this family’s motivations under any kind of context is drowned out in a sea of over-the-top arguments, in-fighting or just plain unimportant scenes featuring the brothers doing their own thing. None of this helps to make the purpose any clearer at all, and considering how outlandish it is that they go through with their actions, this factor is the most problematic.
While “Happy Bus Day” may have plenty of technical and visual merits, the end result here is the conundrum of a stylish and well-executed film that doesn’t feature anything of any real emotional impact or interest. This leaves the film solely for the most ardent aficionado of K-dramas or fans of the director’s previous work, who would be the most likely to look past the few minor issues present.