REVIEW: Unlikely Homegrown Korean Hit Reaches U.S. Shores; Lee Jung-Hyang's "The Way Home"
by Erica Abeel
(indieWIRE: 11.14.02) -- How can the scene of a kid rearranging clothespins on his grandmother's clothesline deliver a big emotional payoff? Well, that's precisely the feat achieved by "The Way Home," the stunningly assured and affecting second feature by the young South Korean director Lee Jung-Hyang. Opening in Seoul with almost no advance hoopla, her film about the unconditional love of a grandmother became a surprise box-office smash, outperforming "Spider Man," "Oceans Eleven," and "A Beautiful Mind" in the South Korean market. "Way," which Paramount Classics releases tomorrow, was also a standout at this year's Toronto Film Festival's 10-film country Spotlight titled "Harvest: South Korean Renaissance."
To the surprise of many -- and the piqued interest of Hollywood -- South Korea, along with India, boasts a thriving indigenous film biz that holds its own alongside American blockbusters. This is partly due to domestic quotas -- but also the burgeoning taste of Korea's cinephile public for homegrown product. The flowering of South Korean film is all the more remarkable since the Japanese occupation in 1937, and then the Korean War, destroyed most of its rich cinematic past. Now, such remarkable films as "Way" -- along with "Chiwaeseon" by old master Im Kwon-taek, which shared best director honors at Cannes -- are deservedly finding distribution in the West.
"Way" tells the simplest of stories: city-bred Sang Woo gets fobbed off on his rural grandmother for the summer by his out-of-work mother while she gets her life together. Partially deaf and mute, the grandmother is at first an object of derision for the self-reliant, bratty kid hooked on Western toys and junk food. But eventually he's transformed by her devotion.
Echoing a leitmotif in Korean cinema, the grandmother is a variation on suffering, subservient woman, a character type that has alienated some Western viewers. And at first, it must be said, "Way" is less than inviting, with sequences that include a lined ancient woman bent double, fetching water from the well like an old pack horse, and there's little dialogue. Yet under the director's sure hand, the grandma becomes a welcome, even radiant image -- the viewer is seduced along with the grandson. And despite the meager plot, Sang Woo's character travels a grand arc, bringing fresh credibility to minimalism.
The boy's transformation occurs through minuscule increments. A French lit major back in college, director Lee Jeong-Hyang skillfully uses the telling detail that Stendhal named "les petits faits vrais" to chart Sang Woo's evolution. In a rage over his rural exile, he pees on the grandma's clogs and later hides them, so that she must journey barefoot over rocks to the well. When his precious Game Boy breaks down, he steals her one treasure to buy batteries. He roller blades around her, as if she didn't exist; in contrast, she sweeps around him as he lies on the floor, to avoid disturbing him. He throws a tantrum when the chicken she serves him is not from Kentucky Fried.
The clothesline byplay marks the boy's first recognition of his grandmother as more than just an irritating object, but his actions understand before his heart. By mid-film, the word "retard" he's written on the walls has been crossed out. The turning point arrives when he realizes his grandmother has sold her watermelons in the market to get him money for the batteries he no longer wants.
The film's deliberate pace soon stops feeling slow; you happily de-accelerate to embrace its rhythms. Except for Sang Woo (Yoo Seung-Ho), the characters are played by non-pros recruited on location. As the grandmother, the marvelous 78-year-old Kim Eul-Bun, who had never seen a film, embodies both the serenity of village life and some bounteous force of nature. The film's visually austere style resists hyperbole over the landscape, instead allowing the nights alive with tree frogs, misted mountains, and lime green fields to diffuse a magical presence.
Adding breadth to this "small" film is a barely concealed attack on Western culture -- the fast food and electronic gizmos stand in for emotional coarseness and hollow values. In contrast are the innumerable small kindnesses that make of the village a cohesive community (the grandmother gives away the "nourishment for old people" brought by her daughter to a sick neighbor.) "The way home" is a metaphor for a retreat from the West and the detritus of American markets, and an embrace of traditional Korean values of family and community (though in a striking dissonance, Western music cues the viewer at key moments). The grandmother becomes a guiding spirit who enables Sang Woo to find his path.
Can a film at the farthest remove from the din and pointless fury of typical Hollywood fare fly in America? Perhaps, because it traffics in universal emotion. It speaks to a yearning for home, wherever that may be. And at seven, this child precociously understands the great gift of unconditional love that may never come his way again -- though whatever else happens in his life, he's firmly grounded. Unlike the shameless manipulation standard in big studio productions, this admittedly teary film avoids sentimentality, because it earns the emotion it generates.