Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 20, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A Month in the Country

Sweet and simple, The Way Home is the opposite of a typical Korean film.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Lee Jeong-hyang’s The Way Home is only the third Korean film to open in Fort Worth-Dallas in the last five years. North Texas audiences have had much more exposure to Iranian cinema by comparison. The other two Korean films that played in the Metroplex were last year’s slick, politically conscious, contemporary action thriller Shiri (directed by Kang Je-gyu) and 2001’s Chunhyang, a classical, rigorous, Oscar-nominated period piece by Korea’s most famous filmmaker, Im Kwon-taek. These three admirable but highly conventional films don’t begin to suggest that Korea owns what may very well be the world’s gnarliest, most turbulent national cinema.

Korean film (and we should specify that this means South Korean, since the North Korean film industry is still devoted to cranking out socialist propaganda) comes from an environment defined by political tension left over from a civil war, centuries of varying kinds of oppression from Asia’s superpowers, and the relatively new innovation of Western-style democracy. What fertile ground this is for filmmakers! In contrast to other Asian countries’ strongly characterized cinemas, Korean cinema is extraordinarily diverse and hard to pigeonhole. It ranges from Hur Jin-ho’s delicately bittersweet romance Christmas in August to Chang Yoon-hyun’s grisly, brooding police procedural Tell Me Something. (Those two movies have the same lead actors, by the way.) Surrealism and black humor run riot, and the rules of genres are routinely flouted. Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong’s Memento Mori is a lesbian ghost story that takes place entirely in a high-school classroom. Jang Sun-woo’s Lies takes its plot about an S&M May-December love affair into the realm of hardcore porn. Park Chul-soo’s ferocious 301/302 is a food movie that makes The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover look as decorous as Like Water for Chocolate. Maddest of all may be Kim Sang-jin’s foul-mouthed comedy Attack the Gas Station!, which begins with a hold-up and ends in an apocalyptic brawl among rival street gangs, police, mafia, and an army of crazed Chinese restaurant delivery boys.

Lee Jeong-hyang’s untroubling films don’t traffic in blood, guts, weird sex, or enraged service employees. Four years after her debut, a romantic comedy called Art Museum by the Zoo, The Way Home is her follow-up. This film begins with a misbehaving 7-year-old boy named Sang-woo (Yoo Seung-ho) riding a bus with his weary mom (Dong Hyo-hee), who can’t think of any way to discipline him except by smacking him, with little result. To look for a job in Seoul, she brusquely leaves him with his grandmother (Kim Eul-boon) in a tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere. The spoiled kid raises hell, especially after he discovers the tv set doesn’t work and the batteries in his handheld video game have run out. Having asked for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sang-woo is bitterly disappointed when the old lady presents him with a boiled chicken, after buying a live bird from the market and preparing it meticulously. (This gives rise to the movie’s single funniest bit, as the English subtitle has the tearful boy saying, “This sucks!” I have no idea how accurate a translation this is, but it seems appropriate.) Eventually, the kid comes to appreciate his grandmother’s love and generosity.

No matter where they come from, movies like these tend to wind up endorsing the value of country life over the noisy city. This one does the same thing, though it’s unfailingly polite about it. The film may be a bit too cozy for its own good, but it could have been much worse if Lee had handled it differently. Many Western filmmakers would have included some melodramatic twist like endangering someone’s life in an attempt to engage our emotions. Lee doesn’t play us like that. Most remarkably, the old lady doesn’t speak a word in the whole film, though she hears just fine. This odd touch changes the game more than you might expect, as the grandmother must deal with Sang-woo’s tantrums nonverbally. Our notions of drama lead us to expect that the old lady will lose her temper or at least show the strain at some point, but instead she shows remarkable even-keeled patience, which proves to be the proper way of dealing with this unruly child. (The movie is cast with amateur actors from the Korean countryside, including Kim Eul-boon, who gives a great performance considering that she, like the young actresses in Rabbit-Proof Fence, had never seen a film before making her acting debut.) Too many filmmakers think that dramatic conflict always has to be loud and intense; this film’s quiet nature is a refreshing antidote.

It’s too bad that only the most conventional Korean movies play for American audiences. However, the ones we do get to see are good enough on their own and can also inspire those moviegoers with a taste for the wild and woolly to haunt the specialty video places. It may say more about Hollywood than it does about the merits of this particular film, but in its extolling of unfamiliar virtues and its unhip attitude, The Way Home is far better than any other kids’ movie currently out there.



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