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Emotional film journey in Korea

The low-budget 'The Way Home' has been a sentimental blockbuster at home, tapping into guilt over the treatment of elders.

November 13, 2002|David Chute | Special to The Times

Hard-boiled moviegoers who go out of their way to avoid even the appearance of sentimentality may have a hard time sorting out their reactions to the Korean import, "The Way Home," which opens Friday in Los Angeles. Is it an art movie or a commercial tear-jerker or some kind of crafty hybrid that uses a deceptively simple and direct narrative style to sneak past our emotional defenses?

The film's slow-building emotional power was confirmed earlier this year, when the carefully crafted low-budget drama became an unexpected summer blockbuster in Korea, beating out glossy imports from Hollywood and Hong Kong and reducing moviegoers of all ages to puddles of helpless tears.

Much of that emotion came to be focused upon the 77-year-old woman who plays the grandmother, an actual rural villager named Kim Eul-boon. Discovered during a location scout in her remote mountain village, Kim became an overnight celebrity.

"She didn't believe it at first," says the film's writer-director, Lee Jung-hyang, "because not only had she never acted in a film before, she had not even seen one. And now there were people driving 200 miles from Seoul to this remote village just to see her face, whole families walking up the mountain. A lot of them just hold her hand and cry, because they are reminiscing about their own grandmothers."

And now "The Way Home" seems poised to put U.S. audiences through the same emotional ringer, capping its success at film festivals in San Sebastian, Spain, and Toronto by becoming the first Korean feature film to be distributed in the U.S. by a major studio, Paramount Classics, the studio's art house division.

Lee acknowledges that the character of Granny Kim was based in part on her own maternal grandmother. "While neither the actress or my real grandmother was mute [Granny Kim is in the film], they both could not read or write. I wanted to suggest a contrast in the film between nature and civilization, but not overtly or out loud. With the concept that the grandmother is a part of nature, it made sense to me that she could not talk, as nature does not directly speak to us. We have to learn how to interpret what it is telling us."

In Korea, the film seems to have tapped into the lingering guilt feelings of many younger viewers over how they have treated (or mistreated) their elders. This is a theme that seems to have a special resonance in traditional Asian societies, where until fairly recently unbroken families often stayed together after the marriage of the eldest son, and the grandparents still had a useful role to play in the household.

"The concept of the nuclear family is new in Korea," says Lee, who was herself raised in an extended family. Her own "Granny Kim" left her village upon the death of her husband, shortly before Lee's birth in 1964, and lived with the family until her own death two years ago. The 38-year-old director currently shares her childhood home with her parents. "But even in my own family," she says, "if I were to declare independence and move out, I don't think that my parents would go to live with my older brother, who is their only son. They would go on living in their apartment, until one of them passed away.

"In the countryside this trend is even more obvious. In Korean culture the village is our hometown, and we still have a lot of nostalgia for that. Even for people who were born and raised in the city, this is the image of home in their heart. But that doesn't mean that we can go back and live there. The young people don't want to live in a village anymore. They move far away to the city to be modern as soon as they can."

A landmark movie

The almost painful timeliness of its theme may help to explain why "The Way Home" has been acclaimed as a landmark movie in Korea, signaling a new phase in the development of the nation's rapidly expanding film industry. Since the mid-1990s, and on the heels of a prolonged decline, Korean cinema has rebounded to become a box office powerhouse in east Asia.

Most accounts trace the beginnings of the so-called "Korean cinema renaissance" back to 1992, when in the name of free trade the government relaxed import restrictions on foreign movies. Local filmmakers were forced to compete head-on with popular offerings from Hollywood and Hong Kong, and in the mid-'90s a new generation of directors, often film-school trained, rose to the challenge.

Since 1995, when the glossy spy thriller "Shiri" became a blockbuster hit, Korean films have been out-grossing the imports on a regular basis. In 2001, the top five attractions at the Korean box office were all home-grown productions.

When Korean audiences began embracing local films, the moviemakers responded to their enthusiasm and worked harder to meet their expectations, and the quality of the movies kept getting better.

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